Times Argus (Montpelier, Vermont), November 15, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Citizen activists working with government officials nixed a plan by International Paper corporation to burn 72 tons of rubber tires each day on the western shore of Lake Champlain. The fight started in September 2003 and ended this week.]

By Darren M. Allen, Vermont Press Bureau

MONTPELIER -- Less than a week's worth of data stopped what three years of protests, regulatory appeals and state and federal court hearings couldn't.

International Paper will abandon its efforts to use shredded tires as fuel for the giant boilers that power its Ticonderoga, N.Y., mill.

In an announcement Tuesday, the company said the use of shredded tires "would not be economically feasible at this time" and it was ceasing tests of the effects of tire burning on air quality.

The announcement was greeted with jubilation on this side of Lake Champlain.

"I hate to say it, but we told them so," Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said. "This is great news. It's unfortunate they had to burn tires to pay attention to what we've been saying all along."

What Sorrell and other public officials from Gov. James Douglas on down have been saying is that the plant should have been forbidden to test tire burning until International Paper installed a pollution control device known as an electrostatic precipitator.

Such a device is used to capture, among other things, tiny particles that would ordinarily spew out of the mill's giant smokestacks when tires are burned. As it happened, the plant approached its federal pollution limits for those particulates when it began to feed shredded tires into its boilers at a rate of less than 1 ton per hour.

Plant officials had hoped to be able to burn up to 3 tons per hour.

"We have a record now, and we now know that their case for not putting on an electrostatic precipitator is much weaker," said Sorrell, who tried -- unsuccessfully -- to thwart the test burn in New York and federal courts. "The proof is in the pudding."

Plant officials sought permission to conduct the test to see if shredded tires would be a viable substitute fuel. Using tires to replace about one-tenth of the No. 6 fuel oil the plant uses now was estimated to save the company about $4 million a year on its energy bill.

But the test confirmed that doing so likely would require expensive upgrades to its boiler and its pollution control devices.

"The permitting process worked and the voice of the people process worked and the court system worked and when all of that comes together along with a company that acts responsibly that did what it said it would do, we are able to make sound decisions," said Donna Wadsworth, the mill's spokeswoman. "The scientific analysis, modeling and learning and then conducting the trial of the alternative fuel source was very important. We were true to our commitment to operate in compliance."

Opposition to the test burn raged since International Paper announced its intentions in the fall of 2003. Critics voiced concern over how the smoke from burned tires would affect the air quality around Lake Champlain.

Indeed, the plant, which sits on the lake's western shore less than a mile across the water from Addison County, is Vermont's largest polluter, even though it is in New York.

The test burn began last week, days after a federal appeals court in New York City denied Vermont's last-minute appeal. Although the plant was given permission to conduct 14 days of testing by New York environmental regulators and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, tires were burned for a total of about 40 hours over five days. The test was halted Thursday after levels of particulates were approaching federal limits.

Vermont's health department went on alert during the trial, and even though no health warnings were issued, a handful of people registered health concerns with the department.

Environmentalists had made the tire burn a cause celebre for years. People for Less Pollution, an Addison County-based group formed to oppose the test burn, was a key opponent.

"This is certainly good news," said the group's president, Richard Carpenter. "They obviously concluded that, without an electrostatic precipitator, it just doesn't make sense. Without one, they were going to produce more pollution than the citizens of Vermont wanted to breathe."

Although it won't be able to save about $4 million a year on fuel costs, the plant will remain an economically feasible part of International Paper, Wadsworth said.

"This mill is a very viable mill making high-end products that are in high demand with our customers," she said. "We are competitive, in fact very competitive, in our market. Like any other business, we have to look at cost effectiveness and at ways to stay competitive."

The paper industry is undergoing a global shift, with production moving overseas in many cases. One of the Ticonderoga mill's key selling points, Wadsworth said, is its proximity to "high quality fiber" -- the millions of acres of hardwood trees that grow in northern New York and New England.

Environmentalists weren't the only ones cheering the demise of tire- derived fuel. The state's congressional delegation -- Rep. Bernard Sanders and Senators Patrick Leahy and James Jeffords -- issued a joint statement Tuesday evening.

"IP's decision to abandon its test burn of tires is positive news, but we believe Vermonters should not have been subjected to these emissions in the first place," the statement said. "If IP had not taken this action, the delegation was prepared to call on the EPA to shut down this test burn."

Contact Darren Allen at darren.allen@timesargus.com.

Copyright 2006 Times Argus