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The Final Word by Chuck Swann
About 27 years ago, papermakers had a new environmental concern sprung on them, one with a new name: dioxin. They quickly shorthanded this to the "D-word," though dioxins were a whole family of chemically related compounds labeled "persistent environmental pollutants." The attention dioxins got would have been sufficient for the coverage of rampant bubonic plague among papermakers. All of a sudden, the paper industry was a big fat target for feverish environmentalism. Never mind that dioxins are a class of chemical contaminants that are formed during combustion processes such as waste incineration, forest fires and backyard trash burning.

The culprit that emerged from the clamor about paper mills was chlorine bleaching. The chemical activity that was making paper white was also spewing poison into the air and water. Elemental chlorine had to go, to be replaced by chlorine dioxide for whitening chemical pulps and hydrogen peroxide for mechanical pulps. The literature of papermaking was suddenly awash with terms such as ECF (elemental chlorine free) and TCF (totally chlorine free). In only a very few years, through one chemical swirl or another, the D-word was driven below the level of detectability.

The pulp and paper industry spent a lot of money on revamping bleach plants and buying and installing new bleaching equipment. The clamor was calmed and rabid environmentalism moved on to other concerns.

But perhaps there is another environmental scare word in the offing. A "C-word." C for coal. If your mill burns coal for heat and power, keep looking over your shoulder. Someday--not now, but someday--the environmentalists are going to come after you.

Coal is more carbon intensive (think CO2) than other fossil fuels and coal companies have found themselves in the crosshairs of global scientific and political calls for action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. The scientific consensus on climate change is the great motivator of the calls for change, as it has eased up to more than 99.9%, according to a study reviewed by television channel MSNBC.

A panel of scientists convened by the British medical Journal Lancet concluded that substituting cleaner energy worldwide for coal will reduce air pollution and give the world a better chance of avoiding dangerous climate change. The panel said hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake each year.

The Lancet commission report came out days after an impassioned plea from Pope Francis to fight global warming and only hours after President Obama's administration issued a report emphasizing the costs of inaction and the benefits of doing something now. The report said that if nothing is done, at the turn of the next century about 57,000 Americans will die each year from polluted air and another 12,000 will perish from extreme temperatures.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has become relentless in its pursuit of coal. Its recent directive, the Clean Power Plan, discourages the use of coal for electricity production. Coal is the cheapest fuel for electricity generation, but the EPA plan would decrease coal's percentage of electricity generation from 39% to 25%.

At the moment, the clean air enforcers are hammering the big electric power companies that produce big-time electricity. But when the big players are brought into line, the smaller coal users can't be far behind. Keep looking over your shoulder.

Chuck Swann is the senior editor of Paperitalo Publications. He can be reached by email at chuck.swann@taii.com.

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