News Feature | February 3, 2017

Virginia's New Industry Tests State's Nutrient Pollution Caps

Dominique 'Peak' Johnson

By Peak Johnson

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A $2 billion paper and fertilizer plant is currently under construction near Richmond and is considered to be the first of its kind. Not only is it the first U.S. venture for a Chinese company but it is also the first project to test Virginia’s ability to add new industrial facilities to the Chesapeake Bay watershed while maintaining pollution caps set for the James River.

Shandong Tranlin Paper Co., is operating in the U.S. under the name Vastly and “has more than 200 patents on its process to turn wheat straw from local farms into pulp for paper products and soil amendments that could then be sold to farmers,” according to the Bay Journal.

Pulp and paper production are not the most sanitary of industries. Factories are known for releasing “a variety of noxious pollutants into the air and discharging nutrients, dissolved organic matter and other contaminants into the water.”

However, in China, Tranlin stated that it has been able to be get rid of many of the industry's environmental issues. Instead, the country “produces unbleached paper in a fashionably brown hue as well as fertilizers from the organic residue that would otherwise be discarded as waste.”

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe added that this kind of operation is “the largest greenfield project ever done in the United States” when he announced last year that state officials had recruited the company to locate there.

However, according to emails that the Bay Journal obtained through a public-records request, leading up to the announcement being made about the new plant “the state’s environmental regulators were laboring to figure out how to accommodate a project like none they’d seen before.”

The concerns focused on if the project could “undercut Virginia’s efforts to reduce nutrient pollution to the James River and the Chesapeake.”

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) set pollution caps for Richmond’s largest dischargers in both 2005 and 2006, which were used to get a handle on how much nitrogen and phosphorus could be released.

As part of the state’s plan to improve the health of both the tributary and the bay, limits on the James River had been set to be reduced over time.

As this was going on, “a nutrient credit exchange program was established to give some flexibility to big dischargers — wastewater treatment plants, in particular — so they could meet tighter discharge limits without all of them having to make costly upgrades at the same time.”

Unfortunately, the program gave facilities that were already in service “all of the nutrient loadings that officials believed the James River could handle, and many plants now have more credits than they actually need.”

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Source Water Contamination Solutions Center.

Image credit: "Coal Power-Plant and Oilseed Rape, April 2014" x1klima © 2014 used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/