Water Pollution:

Application of National Cleanup Standards to the Pulp and Paper Industry

RCED-87-52: Published: Mar 18, 1987. Publicly Released: Apr 20, 1987.

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In response to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) national effluent standards limiting the types and amounts of pollutants that industries may discharge into the nation's water. GAO used the paper and pulp industry as an example to determine whether: (1) discharge permit limits were at least as stringent as the appropriate national standards required; and (2) the amount of pollutants in selected pulp and paper mills' effluent met the appropriate national standards.

GAO found that: (1) the vast majority of the 193 major effluent-discharging pulp and paper mills held permits whose limits were at least as stringent as national standards required; and (2) mills in five major pulp-and-paper-producing areas were generally discharging the two key nontoxic pollutants for the industry at levels in line with permit limits. However, GAO found problems with the way in which permitting authorities set limits because they could result in discharges of more pollutants than the national standards allowed, since: (1) mill production figures available in setting some permit limits did not include 5-year historical production figures; and (2) permit writers were not consistently applying more stringent new-source standards to some expansions of existing pulp and paper mills. GAO also found that the water pollution program changed in recent years because: (1) individual states became the driving force in setting cleanup levels for the pulp and paper industry by setting permit levels and dealing with site-specific water pollution problems; and (2) the second-stage standards EPA set for nationwide application were no more stringent than the first-stage standards because EPA determined that the cost of meeting the more stringent standards was not reasonable for the pulp and paper industry.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA agreed with this recommendation, but there are no indications that they plan to implement this recommendation or take related actions.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should implement EPA instructions by requiring permitting authorities to obtain and use 5-year historical-average production data when setting future pulp and paper mills' permit limits. Exceptions to this procedure should be documented and occur only when historic trends, market forces, or company plans indicate that a different level of production will prevail during the life of a permit.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: There is no indication that EPA plans to implement this recommendation or take related actions.

    Recommendation: To promote the consistent application of new-source national standards to mill expansions, the Administrator, EPA, should develop instructions that set out specifically how permitting authorities are to determine if new-source standards should be applied to expansions of existing pulp and paper mills, such as linking new-source determinations to a specific percentage of production increases.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: There is no indication that EPA plans to implement this recommendation or take related actions.

    Recommendation: Because water pollution control technology, costs, and benefits can change over time, the Administrator, EPA, should establish specific time frames for periodic reevaluations of the costs and benefits of implementing more advanced control technologies for existing pulp and paper mills. If EPA determines that the cost of more advanced control technologies is reasonable, such controls should be implemented.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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