Story for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette by Eric Besson, Emily Walkenhorst. Originally published March 25, 2018, updated March 26, 20
CROSSETT — The release of hydrogen sulfide by a Georgia-Pacific paper mill here went unchecked and unregulated for decades, company officials said, and people who live nearby blame the toxic gas for their labored breathing.
Citing findings from two recent air monitoring programs, state health officials said the amount of hydrogen sulfide in the air in Crossett is routinely below thresholds that determine whether air is safe to breathe. However, the amount is frequently well above the levels at which the odor — which can also cause health problems — can be detected.
The monitoring findings come after the mill significantly reduced its emissions of the compound that is common to paper mills, an effort that began when a long-delayed federal rule first compelled Georgia-Pacific to disclose how much hydrogen sulfide it was releasing, public records show.
Sometimes abbreviated as H2S, hydrogen sulfide can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, poor memory and balance problems, as well as breathing difficulties for people who have asthma.
For years residents have expressed concern that the air was harmful to their health and property.
Sylvia Howard, 58, said the foul-smelling gas often aggravates respiratory problems for her, her children and her grandchildren. They live on the east side of Crossett, southeast of the paper mill and east of its wastewater treatment plant, where most of the emissions occur.
“If they paid me, I’d get out of here tomorrow,” Howard said in reference to buyouts some Crossett homeowners received years ago from Georgia-Pacific after allegations that dirty air from the mill had damaged their property.
Hydrogen sulfide — which primarily rises as steam from dirty water drained from the facility — far exceeded the mill’s state air permit limit every year from 2012-16, according to the company’s self-reported figures. Yet, Georgia-Pacific has not faced penalties related to its release of the gas.
When informed by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the mill exceeded its permit limit in 2016, the latest year for which data are available, Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality officials said they did not know the company had done so. The agency later refused to answer specific questions about air monitoring and emissions exceedances at the facility.
The emissions summary table in the permit lists “total allowable emissions,” including “total reduced sulfur,” which includes hydrogen sulfide. But the summary table is not an enforceable part of the permit, according to department officials.
Only limits listed in the permit for specific emissions sources are enforceable, department officials said. The wastewater treatment plant is not listed as an emissions source for total reduced sulfur.
Georgia-Pacific officials said hydrogen sulfide emissions from its wastewater stream were not factored into its state air permit limit and thus weren’t restricted because the company did not know how to properly measure how much of the gas it was releasing.
Traylor Champion, Georgia-Pacific’s senior vice president for environmental affairs, said it is more difficult to measure emissions from a water source, such as the wastewater treatment system, than a stationary source, such as a boiler.
Read full story with interactive maps: Findings show hydrogen sulfide emissions from Arkansas paper mill over limit – Mobile