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B.C. pulp and paper mill fined $22,000 for leaking toxic gas into atmosphere

The Paper Excellence mill in Howe Sound was the company's second B.C. facility in four months that has been penalized for contaminating the environment.
Paper Excellence's Howe Sound Pulp and Paper Mill on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast has been the site of a number of toxic gas leaks.

A B.C. pulp and paper mill owned by the country’s largest forestry company has been handed $22,000 in penalties for releasing toxic gases into the atmosphere. 

The fines, handed to Paper Excellence’s Howe Sound Pulp and Paper Mill on the Sunshine Coast, included 201 failures to comply with limits on the release of sulphur dioxide from its power boiler. In some cases, gas concentrations climbed 81 per cent above the daily limit, according to a decision from director of the Environmental Management Act Jason Bourgeois.

Sulphur dioxide, or SO2, contributes to the generation of acid aerosols and acid rain. In high concentrations, it can cause “breathing problems, respiratory illness, changes in the lung's defences, and worsening respiratory and cardiovascular disease,” noted the decision. 

“At a minimum,” Bourgeois wrote, the 201 failures to comply with daily and hourly SO2 limits have “a medium potential to result in a significant adverse effect” to the environment and human health. 

The director increased the penalty to the mill for the repeated nature of the violations, finding “there was no detectable decrease in the rate of failures” over the nearly three years of contraventions. But Bourgeois decided they were not deliberate and reduced the penalty further after finding Paper Excellence had spent some money to ensure they did not occur again. 

Each of the breaches, which spanned December 2020 to April 2023, could have earned the company $40,000 penalties. But in his decision, Bourgeois chose to limit the monetary penalty as the contravention was “moderate” and the mill’s first penalty under the permit. 

Paper Excellence said it has 'improved reliability' of equipment

Between 2017 and 2022, dozens of workers at the mill were exposed to toxic gases in leaks that have prompted multiple WorkSafeBC investigations. In December 2023, one worker who said he was exposed to gases then fired over his workplace injuries won the right to a hearing at the BC Human Rights Tribunal. 

A spokesperson for Paper Excellence said  the environmental penalties are not related to the workplace exposures, which “took place predominately in 2017, when a new piece of equipment was installed and found to be faulty.”

“Gases produced as part of the pulp manufacturing process are usually incinerated in the kiln, which keeps the mill within permit limits,” explained Brenda Martin. 

When the kiln is shut down the power boiler is used for incineration, a process that can produce sulphur dioxide.

“This is allowed by the Ministry of Environment if the mill provides 72 hours of notice,” Martin said, adding the Howe Sound mill has invested $7 million over three years to improve the reliability of the kiln.

“This is intended to reduce the number of times the kiln is shut down with short notice, leaving the mill to rely on the power boiler for incineration,” Martin said. 

In another set of contraventions detailed by Bourgeois this month, the mill was found to have failed to maintain its equipment on 116 occasions over more than two years leading up to April 2023.

Second B.C. mill to receive environmental penalties this year

Paper Excellence purchased the Howe Sound mill in 2010 as it began expanding its operations across B.C. Since then, it has grown to become one of the largest forestry companies in North America. After more than US$7 billion in acquisitions in recent years, the company controls more than 22 million hectares of Canadian forest — roughly seven Vancouver Islands — and owns dozens of mills across Canada, the U.S., Brazil and France.

Paper Excellence's meteoric rise has at times been plagued by controversy. In 2016, the Canadian government handed a $225,000 penalty to the company’s Northern Pulp mill for leaking more than 47 million litres of pulp and paper effluence into Pictou Harbour, N.S. Two years later, federal authorities fined its mill in Mackenzie, B.C., $900,000 for leaking effluence into a lake. Both mills were added to Canada’s environmental offenders registry.

And in January, a wholly owned subsidiary of Paper Excellence was told to pay $25,500 in penalties for dumping highly toxic waste into the ocean from its Crofton pulp and paper mill on Vancouver Island. 

The Paper Excellence mill in Crofton. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Cross-border investigation prompts federal investigation

Built in 1909, the Howe Sound mill is among the province’s oldest pulp and paper mills. Today, it employs 365 people and every year produces 420,000 tonnes of kraft pulp, much of which is shipped overseas where it reinforces paper products made from tropical hardwood. 

A 2023 Glacier Media investigation into Paper Excellence carried out with partners from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) found evidence suggesting the company had significant business ties with a Sino-Indonesian pulp and paper giant Asia Pulp and Paper (APP).

Paper Excellence and APP maintain they are wholly independent from one another. But leaked internal communications and interviews with former APP employees suggested the company sent directions to Paper Excellence from its Shanghai offices. 

Documents obtained by the consortium of media outlets also revealed the China Development Bank — an overseas investment arm of the Chinese government — provided US$1.25 billion in credit to Paper Excellence mills. Paper Excellence says those ties no longer exist and it remains free of any debt obligations connected to the Chinese government.

Reporting by ICIJ members also appeared to show Paper Excellence pulp shipments sent from B.C. to Shanghai through an APP-linked logistics company. One former employee described Paper Excellence as a “a feeder for the Chinese machine.” 

After publication of the ICIJ stories, Canada's Standing Committee on Natural Resources launched an investigation into Paper Excellence, including its business ties and corporate structure. Paper Excellence owner Jackson Wijaya, whose father heads APP, has so far refused multiple requests to appear before the parliamentary committee.

NDP MP and natural resources critic Charlie Angus filed a notice of motion to pass a legal summons for Wijaya, though it’s not clear when that vote will go ahead or if it will compel him to speak before the committee.

Paper Excellence's Northern Pulp mill in Nova Scotia, before it was shut down in 2020. Dr. Gerry Farrell

​Meanwhile, in November 2023, Greenpeace Canada and the Indonesian environmental group Auriga Nusantara submitted an official complaint to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the world’s premier forestry credentials body. The complaint called on the FSC to revoke sustainability certificates from Paper Excellence over “strong evidence” it is a “sister company” of APP.

The Asian conglomerate lost its green FSC credentials in 2007 over alleged widespread deforestation, and through the companies' alleged links, the claim argues Paper Excellence should also lose its sustainability certificates.

In a February 2024 letter, the FSC rejected the complaint against Paper Excellence but said it was in the process of carrying out a “corporate group review.” The green forestry credentials body did not describe the terms of the review but said it would summarize its findings sometime near the end of April.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect comments from a Paper Excellence spokesperson.

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