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Evergreen undergoes costly clean up of coal stacks under new air pollution rules

fr millThe smokestacks at Evergreen Packaging paper mill in Canton will be significantly cleaner within four years thanks to $50 million in pollution upgrades.

The plant’s four coal-powered boilers don’t have state-of the-art pollution controls. But new federal rules are forcing hundreds of older coal-powered factories nationwide to reduce their emissions and come up to par with the highest of industry standards. The bar is indeed high: every factory will be expected to match the air pollution controls used by today’s best emissions performers.

“It’s like a super average,” explained Dane Griswold, the manager of Evergreen operations in Haywood County.

The mill is taking a two-prong approach to come into compliance with the tough federal rules by 2019. Two coal boilers will be outfitted with top-notch emission control technology. The other two will be converted to natural gas. 

Converting boilers to natural gas posed a challenge, however. Existing natural gas lines through Haywood County couldn’t deliver the volume the mill would need. To increase capacity, the lines needed intermittent compressors to increase the pressure and in turn push more natural gas through.

PSNC, the natural gas provider in the region, has agreed to do the necessary line upgrades — an upfront cost it hopes to make back from the natural gas it sells the mill over time.

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The $50 million capital investment of the boiler upgrades at the mill will improve the environment, preserve jobs and help the mill stay competitive, Griswold said.

“Our community will benefit over both the short term and long term from these improvements,” Griswold said.

The work, in part, is being funded by state taxpayers. Mill officials had claimed they couldn’t afford the emission upgrades otherwise. 

The state pledged $12 million toward the cost of the upgrades, tapping a special fund earmarked specifically for this purpose: to aid large factories with required environmental upgrades in order to save jobs. The grant was approved by the General Assembly last year under the so-called Job Maintenance and Capital Development Fund.

Mill officials asserted in the application the mill would close if they didn’t get the grant to help with the cost.

“The facility would not be allowed to operate without complying with these environmental regulations,” mill officials wrote in a grant application to the state. “The facility will thus be forced to shut down which would impact approximately 1,200 jobs and a payroll of $90 million a year.”

But the application couldn’t make things seem too dire, or the state may have simply seen the grant as all for naught.

“The current business at the mill is good,” mill officials stated.

Once it cleared the hurdle of the new federal emission rules, the mill would be sustainable, according to the application.

Diligent lobbying by the local and regional business community, elected leaders, economic development officials and state legislators from the region — including N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and N.C. Rep Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville — managed to garner the requisite support from the General Assembly and governor.

Griswold said the mill is “extremely grateful” for the support.

“Evergreen worked collaboratively and constructively with state lawmakers to find a solution that includes a shared investment in pollution upgrades at the Canton mill,” said Griswold. 

At one point, the state had also committed a $2.1 million grant to aid with the natural gas line upgrades by PSNC. The grant required a local match, and Haywood County commissioners dutifully pledged $700,000 to make it happen, claiming the mill might shut down if the county didn’t do its part.

But PSNC ultimately turned down the grant due to terms and conditions of the funding, so the county will get to keep its money, and the line upgrades will happen anyway.


The demise of grandfathered coal bastions

This is hardly the first time the mill has been forced to fork out big bucks to rein in pollution. It’s spent $330 million since 1990 on environmental upgrades and measures. But the majority has been aimed at water quality in the Pigeon River. This project will be the single biggest investment in air quality improvements.

“With the investment the mill’s environmental footprint will be much improved,” mill officials wrote in the grant application to the state. “The project will dramatically reduce the plant’s greenhouse gas, SO2, particulates and metals.” 

Evergreen paper mill is currently the largest industrial air toxin polluter in Western North Carolina and one of the largest in the state, according to federal emissions reporting.  As a result, Haywood County has some of the highest levels of industrial air pollution in the state. It ranked fourth out of 100 counties statewide in toxic air emissions, according to EPA emissions data for 2010.

American factories have gradually been cleaning up their emissions over the past three decades. Typically, expansions or major equipment overhauls trigger federal emission rules, forcing factories to upgrade their pollution controls.

While Evergreen’s current pollution controls aren’t antiquated, they aren’t the gold standard either, simply due to their age.

“Old mills aren’t required to put state-of-the-art emissions equipment on their boilers,” said Heather Sands, an environmental engineer who oversees air pollution permits with the N.C. Division of Air Quality.

Tom Mather, a spokesperson with the N.C. Division of Air Quality, favors the new-car versus old-car analogy. A newer car pollutes less than older ones, but “You can’t go back and require everybody who owns an old car to put on the advanced technology that new cars have,” Mather said.

These older coal-fired factories like Evergreen have finally reached the end of the line, however, and can’t cling to their grandfathered status anymore. The new federal rules will impose the latest-and-greatest pollution controls regardless.

“They have upped the ante,” Sands said.

The EPA estimated about 1,000 boilers nationwide didn’t meet the impending rules.

And like Evergreen, “They are either replacing coal with natural gas or upgrading with pollution control devices,” Griswold said.

A study by the American Forest and Paper Association in 2010 warned that the new industrial air pollution limits could threaten pulp and paper mills nationwide, forcing as many as 30 mills to close, although the predictions were likely a worst-case scenario.

While the federal rules have been decried as a death knell to some factories — pitting the environment against jobs — compliance is overdue, according to Avram Friedman, director of the Canary Coalition, a statewide air quality advocacy group based in Sylva.

“When the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, the intention was clearly that we would be phasing out the older coal-burning facilities and they would be replaced by new modernized equipment. That was clearly the intention of the law, but there are a lot of plants that managed to avoid that,” Friedman said.

Friedman said the greater good is served by ending the grandfathered status of older coal polluters.

“That will significantly improve air quality for all Americans,” Friedman said.


Powerhouse of power

Meticulous planning must ensure the mill doesn’t skip a beat during the upgrades and replacements of its boilers, said Matt Claypool, director of environment, health and safety for Evergreen.

Claypool said the mill is used to humming along despite an almost constant cycle of maintenance and repairs to machinery. The work is currently in the engineering phase and construction will begin by late next year, with completion by 2019, according to Claypool.

The Canton mill churns out a dizzying 1,700 tons of paper a day. Lines of train cars piled high with wood chips chug into the mill at one end, and giant rolls of paper — bigger than a school bus — emerge on the other side.

It takes a massive amount of energy, and that’s where the fleet of boilers come in.

The mill makes a lot of its own power, but not enough to run the entire plant. It buys the rest from Duke Energy.

The paper mill is Duke Energy’s largest customer in Western North Carolina, in fact. 

The mix of energy — what it makes in-house versus what it buys from Duke — fluctuates constantly.

The mill can adjust its power generation up or down, depending on what its own coal costs are running compared to Duke’s wholesale power rates that day.

“We swing back and forth between what is most economical, but in general, we make as much as we buy,” Griswold said.

The mill’s boilers are used in the paper-making process as well.

“We use steam and heat in the manufacturing process, quite a bit of it, in several different areas,” Griswold said. 

The mill will see long-term benefits from the two boilers converted to natural gas. Natural gas is cheaper than coal and maintenance costs on the boilers are lower. A full switch to natural gas — converting all four coal boilers instead of just two — wasn’t feasible, however, Griswold said.

“The upgrade it would take to supply that much natural gas was much larger than anyone wanted to tackle,” he said.

Nor was it feasible to simply put better pollution controls on all the coal-powered boilers.

“For the two boilers we chose to replace with natural gas, it wasn’t economically feasible to add pollution controls to,” Griswold said.

Meanwhile, it could behoove the mill not to have all its energy in one basket. The combination of coal and natural gas — with two boilers of each — is a nice hedge to have, in the event of price spikes for one or the other.

In the long run, natural gas will cost less than coal, and the maintenance on natural gas boilers is less. So it’s a win-win in the end: a cleaner environment, shared public-private investment and jobs for the future.

 “You will continue to see the cars and trucks going in and out of the employee entrance gates,” Griswold said.



By the numbers 

Cost of air pollution upgrades: $50 million 

Portion covered by state grant: $12 million

Haywood County jobs at stake: 1,100 

Countdown to completion: 4 Years

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