One of Macon’s largest local air polluters is proposing to reduce its sulfur dioxide pollution by 40 percent, according to state regulators.
The Graphic Packaging International paper mill would eliminate coal-burning boilers and, in the process, cut down on air pollution that can cause breathing problems and worsen asthma.
The company, which employs about 500 people at the mill that manufactures coated paper board, is seeking changes to its state air permit that would allow it to retire two boilers that date to the 1940s, said Marion Bard, operations manager at the Macon mill.
One boiler would be immediately replaced with a “biomass” boiler that burns wood waste. The other would switch to natural gas fuel before perhaps eventually being shut down, said Greg Hanson, resident manager at the Macon mill. The mill’s two other existing boilers burn biomass and black liquor, a byproduct of the wood milling process, he said.
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The state Environmental Protection Division will hold a public question-and-answer session and hearing Tuesday at Bruce Elementary School about the company’s request.
Sulfur dioxide contributes to fine particle pollution that penetrates deep into the lungs. Bibb County is now in a federal “nonattainment zone” for failing to meet health standards for fine particle pollution, although it is soon expected to be officially re-designated as meeting those standards.
“It’s going to be a huge chunk of sulfur dioxide removed from Bibb County,” said Eric Cornwell, manager of the EPD air stationary source permitting program, adding that no other factory in the county releases significant amounts of the pollutant. “Any decrease will help,” he said.
The proposed changes could increase some of the mill’s other types of air pollution, however. Most notably, the permit would allow carbon monoxide emissions to increase by 460 tons per year, about 30 percent, Cornwell said.
But the permit is based on the maximum emissions possible from running the technology at full tilt -- not on what the company actually produces. Cornwell said that actual emissions are usually half the maximum allowed in the permit.
Bard said the company expects that its carbon monoxide emissions will not actually increase.
And Cornwell said carbon monoxide, which inhibits oxygen absorption, is considered much less harmful than other air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide.
Three other types of air pollution could also increase, but not by amounts that environmental regulations label as significant: fine particle pollution could increase by less than 15 tons per year (about 5 percent), nitrogen oxide by 38 tons per year (about 3 percent), and volatile organic compounds by 30 tons a year (about 6 percent), Cornwell said.
Along with the new boilers, Graphic Packaging proposes to install a new turbine generator that would create 38 megawatts of power a year, enough to power about 26,000 homes, said Lucia Ross, director of corporate communication for Graphic Packaging.
Most of that energy will be used to power the mill. The company might then sell five to 10 megawatts back to the grid, Bard said. The company is conducting a study of interconnecting with the Georgia Power network, she said.
Many paper mills burn some of their production waste in biomass boilers, but the Macon mill will be “a little more biomass-driven than most” if the company’s plan is approved, Bard said.
Hanson noted that regulations proposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency could make it more expensive for plants to burn fossil fuels.
“Biomass energy will help stabilize energy costs and create positive environmental impacts,” Ross said.
Bard added, “To me, the big picture benefit is making our operation in Macon more sustainable and really securing the jobs we have here.”
Hanson said Graphic Packaging expects to get roughly 60 percent of its biomass fuel from the mill’s own debarking operation. Most of the rest would likely come from the purchase of logging waste.
Hanson said the company expects to start operating a new boiler and turbine generator by the middle of 2013 if the state grants the permit soon. The company estimates it will add eight to 10 new jobs at the mill as a result, plus generate about 20 jobs in the logging industry.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.