It Came From On High 

It Came From On High

Church groups, shareholders played a role in Stone's bleach-plant shutdown

The stacks of paper that pile up on environmentalists' desks about Stone Container's Frenchtown paper mill may seem smaller after its bleaching facility closes this June. After all, discharges of chloroform, chlorine gas and hydrochloric acid into the air and water will be eliminated with the closure.

Local activists, who have been keeping tabs on Stone Container's bleaching plant for years, celebrated its decision to close the facility as a public health and environmental victory. "It's a great day for the health of Missoula Valley residents and the Clark Fork River," says Billy Stern of the Native Forest Network. "Stone's decision to shut down the bleach plant at its Missoula mill makes great economic and environmental sense."

However, controversy surrounding the bleaching plant has a long history that stems not only from environmental organizations, but also from the United Methodist Church. The church has clout with the company because its members hold more than $90 billion in investment assets.

Stone Container says it closed its chlorine bleaching plant due to new EPA rules. But the United Methodist Church says that’s not the only reason.
Photo by Chad Harder

In 1995, the church, which is associated with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, introduced a shareholder resolution to end the use of chlorine company-wide by 2002. According to Bruce Herbert, a consultant with the Interfaith Center, United Methodist Church has been working toward chlorine-free practices because of its own resolution to end its involvement with the use of dioxin. Dioxin, a by-product of the chlorine bleaching processes, is one of the most potent toxins on earth.

The resolution, had it been brought to a vote, probably would not have passed, Herbert says, but, nevertheless, Stone Container agreed to an evaluation of its bleaching facilities by an independent consultant if the resolution was withdrawn. Stone also agreed not to make any additional expenditures on bleaching equipment until the review was completed.

"Stone set aside money under the Interfaith Center's direction and we brought in a consulting engineer, one who has designed some of the most environmentally sound and economically efficient mills in the world," Herbert says.

Engineer Richard Albert recommended that Stone slowly work toward using chlorine-free technology instead of trying to convert all at once. "It had to be something doable," says Herbert. "We had to demonstrate the feasibility of chlorine-free."

By converting slowly to chlorine-free technology, the recommendations were also economically feasible-a plus for investors. But even with such strong recommendations in favor of the move, Stone was juggling too many things to divert its attention to the long-term. In April 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency passed the "Cluster Rules," new pollution control regulations which required, among other things, that companies move away from elemental chlorine and toward chlorine dioxide technology by April, 2001. That new technology would have cost Stone $10-15 million for the Frenchtown mill's bleaching facility. And, if that weren't enough, talk of a merger was in the air, making Stone nervous about issuing any important decisions before the marriage with Jefferson Smurfit Corp., which occurred in November.

So, while Stone fulfilled its obligations with the Interfaith Center and the shareholders, Herbert says that the merger really stopped the chlorine-free movement in its tracks. "The recommendations have been given but not acted on," Herbert says. "We may do another resolution, but we are not really sure what we can do." And though the entire company may not be moving toward the chlorine-free processes, the Frenchtown mill will still be bleach-free by June. "One can safely put forth that these negotiations definitely had an impact in moving them in this direction [of closing the bleach plant,]" Herbert says.

Bob Boschee, the mill's general manager, doesn't agree. He says the resolution and subsequent negotiations and any other pressure from environmentalists had no impact on Stone's decision to close the bleach plant. The Cluster Rules, he says, offered the best reason to consolidate bleaching operations and close the plant here.

With fewer emissions into the air and water, Missoula residents reap the benefits of the closure, whatever the reason, but some community members worry that the problems just moved to another part of the country.

"The resolution called for Stone to move to chlorine-free mills," says Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes with First United Methodist Church. "They didn't solve the problem by saying we won't bleach here, because they will just bleach somewhere else. The church is interested in moving beyond the Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome."

Garnaas-Holmes adds that the church is interested in increasing the numbers of jobs, and environmentalists have agreed. "There will be fewer jobs lost if the facility was reorganized for totally chlorine-free technology," says Garnaas-Holmes. "In fact, there would be more jobs."

When the bleach plant at the Frenchtown mill closes, ten people in the company may lose their jobs, most likely recently hired employees. But, with community support, the job situation may not be all bad. Bryony Schwan, director of Women's Voice for the Earth, says, "I'm trying to put together a group of people in the community to make sure that, if anyone is laid off, they will get community support for new jobs."

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