The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has asked a federal judge to shut down Westvaco Corp.'s pulp and paper mill in southern Allegany County until the company installs new pollution control equipment and to fine the company hundreds of millions of dollars for allegedly violating clean air laws.
The agency charged in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that Westvaco has continually expanded its plant in Luke since 1981 without obtaining proper federal permits and without installing air pollution controls, causing large increases in emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide.
Westvaco, one of the largest U.S. makers of paperboard, with 13,000 employees worldwide, annually releases more than 2 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, according to the suit.
Yesterday, the company, which employs 1,500 in Luke, called EPA's claims "misguided" and said the agency is "applying new policies retroactively" to "past industry practices that were well-known and previously accepted by EPA."
Andrea Bear Field, Westvaco's lawyer, said the company had all the permits it needed for the expansion projects.
"We got all the state permits. EPA was at the plant, and they were aware of it," she said. "If this was as egregious as EPA makes it sound, you'd think someone would have said something. It's only been in the last year or so that EPA has changed its interpretation of the rules."
Westvaco is among seven Middle Atlantic pulp and paper mills the EPA threatened with fines over alleged Clean Air Act violations in April 1999 when it announced a crackdown on pulp and paper mills polluting the air and Chesapeake Bay. It is the first company the agency has taken to court.
"We've had conversations with a number of the companies, and in some cases settlements are ongoing," said William Early, EPA's regional counsel. "But in this instance, because the negotiations were not fruitful, we decided we had to go forward."
In its complaint, filed late Monday, EPA charged that Westvaco expanded the Luke plant by 40 percent without obtaining permits or installing the required pollution controls. From 1980 to 1998, emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide sharply increased, the complaint states.
The company initiated three projects between 1981 and 1985 to expand its digesters, which use chemicals to convert wood chips to wood pulp, increasing the emissions of sulfur dioxide by 40 tons a year, nitrogen oxide by 40 tons a year and other particulate matter by 25 tons a year, the suit charges. In addition, the firm expanded the rest of the plant by installing a line to bleach hardwood pulp, rebuilding paper machines and increasing the capacity of an electric generator.
EPA said the changes were major modifications that increased emissions and required federal permits. Field said the changes allowed the plant to operate at the higher capacities for which its boilers were originally built.
"When you get your house wired, you have to get a permit for that, but you don't have to get a permit every time you buy a new computer or a VCR, and that's what this is," she said. Sulfur dioxide can cause chronic bronchitis, fatigue and altered senses of taste and smell in humans. Nitrogen oxide leads to the formation of acid rain.