Air and Water Management: Meeting the Ongoing Challenges

The industry has made huge strides in managing its air and water quality. For the past 75 years, NCASI has supported those efforts.

When it comes to managing air and water quality, the hard truth is that, with seemingly unlimited resources available, mills of a century ago didn’t pay as much attention to effluent treatment or sustainability as they do now. Most deserved their reputations as dirty, smelly, and polluting.

Since that time, pulp and paper manufacturers have made tremendous strides to substantially change their environmental profile—and are beginning to win the battle of public perception to be seen as environmental stewards committed to responsibly managing the use of natural resources and continuously improving the quality of their air and water discharges. From those early concerns—through the establishment of the EPA in the 1970s, followed by burgeoning environmental legislation; to the dioxin controversies of the 1980s; and the 1990s-era issues surrounding endangered species (such as the spotted owl), as well as concerns about chlorine dioxide-based bleaching—each decade has brought a new set of environmental performance demands.

Studies conducted by NCASI over more than 40 years show that modern, well-treated effluents are compatible with healthy aquatic river systems.

Today, US mills are challenged with evolving regulations, the demands of larger production facilities and a global market, limited resources, and the pressures brought on by concerns about climate change. To meet each era’s new challenges, the pulp and paper industry has invested billions of dollars to keep sustainability front-and-center.

The National Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI) has been helping the forest products industry meet its environmental challenges for the past 75 years (see sidebar). NCASI is a non-profit environmental research organization that provides member companies with the credible scientific information they need to address environmental issues.


To learn more about our industry’s current challenges and how they’re being addressed, Paper360° queried Vipin Varma, vice president – air quality, NCASI; and Paul Wiegand, vice president – water quality, NCASI. Their responses have been consolidated in the interview here.

P360°: What have been the biggest strides made in addressing past challenges in pollution control and water management?

NCASI: While the forest products industry has made consistent and measurable progress in environmental performance over many decades, there certainly have been times where we have seen bigger strides over relatively short periods of time. One could say the most significant of these was in the early 1940s when industry leadership concluded it made sense to be proactive and collaborative in addressing the need for improved environmental science in pollution control and effluent management. The incorporation of NCASI in 1943, for example, stemmed from this mindset. The same philosophy rings true today.

Studies conducted by NCASI over more than 40 years show that modern, well-treated effluents are compatible with healthy aquatic river systems.

The widespread use of biologically based wastewater treatment and ECF bleaching are good examples of step changes in overall environmental protection that, at their roots, exemplify the leadership of forest products companies in meeting environmental challenges. The ability to reliably collect and safely transport non-condensible gas (NCG) streams and treat them in a variety of combustion sources like boilers and recovery furnaces is yet another example of a big stride. All these have resulted in continued reductions in the overall emission footprint, as frequently observed in benchmarking compilations.

What do you see as the biggest current challenge the pulp and paper industry faces in terms of air and/or water quality?

The environmental performance of forest products companies is exceptional and current environmental regulations and social obligations ensure it will continue to be so. As the scale of environmental impacts (and the ability to measure them) reduces significantly due to improved performance and existing regulations, it is even more important to ensure that the basis for future environmental regulations continue to be grounded in sound science, are achievable, and have demonstrable environmental or health benefits that justify associated costs.

The above is applicable both for air and water quality. In air quality, as the focus shifts from source-specific pollution control toward compliance with ambient air quality standards, one challenge is that regulatory implementation sometimes outpaces the availability of reliable demonstration tools; with facility-specific contributions to ambient air quality typically having to be modeled rather than measured. In effluent/water quality, risk assessments and impact modeling include a margin of safety when setting environmental quality goals; when these are poorly defined, compliance can mean increased costs with minimal environmental benefit.

One of today’s challenges is that improved performance in one area can lead to tradeoffs in other areas. For instance, environmental regulatory approaches that merely transfer a pollutant from one matrix to another, or substantially increase the associated energy footprint, can be counterproductive and do more harm than good. It is, therefore, more important than ever to consider environmental performance in a more holistic manner.

How does NCASI’s work directly help pulp, paper, or packaging manufacturing facilities?

Those that orchestrated the founding of NCASI showed exceptional foresight in creating an organization that would provide ongoing value in both the short and long term. This founding tenet is deeply ingrained in the way we operate.

NCASI technical work is collaborative, focusing on issues shared by multiple mills and often involving site-specific investigations.

Simply put, our mission is to facilitate better environmental and sustainability performance through basic and applied research, technical support, and education. Our technical studies and, where necessary, fundamental research fills known information gaps. Development of industry-specific emission testing and analytical methods, performance models, air emission data, and life cycle assessments of paper products are just a few examples.

A second tenet is our focus on documenting, archiving, and disseminating this technical information. Collectively, it represents a resource that offers a rare and accessible amount of “institutional knowledge.” NCASI staff, its members, and other stakeholders such as regulatory agencies use this long-term knowledge base every day to ensure that environmental management decisions are as well-informed as they can be.

NCASI activities directly impact pulp, paper and packaging manufacturing facilities as follows:
• The technical studies address emerging operational and environmental control issues.
• The tools developed are geared toward improving operations and effectively demonstrating environmental performance.
• The focus on member education through multiple avenues like webcasts and in-person workshops ensures facility personnel learn about the resources and how to leverage them to improve their performance.

NCASI technical studies include air emissions testing. Study planning involves site visits and fabrication work to accommodate site-specific configuration requirements.

What do you see ahead for NCASI’s role in the pulp, paper, and packaging industries?

We see NCASI’s role as continuing to be a preferred provider of relevant environmental science and data that informs regulatory policy, educates, and optimizes operations. Key elements are the ability to generate and subsequently facilitate the effective dissemination of this information.

Understandably, the changing times in the forest products industry has meant evolving information needs. For example, owing to continued challenges associated with staff retirement, general turnover, and/or staffing constraints at member facilities, NCASI is working to improve the nature of its educational and communication services—creating even more effective learning tools that also become the “institutional knowledgebase” for members. A renewed focus on the dissemination of our work products through training tools, publications, etc., will make access to information from NCASI more efficient and more focused for the various target audiences within our member companies.

When the environmental science, expertise, and data generated by our work are of broader relevance to industries beyond the forest products sector, NCASI continues to actively seek out opportunities to collaborate with other scientific organizations, associations, and industry sectors. Such collaboration builds on our founding tenets and can extend, often considerably, the impact of the information generated.

NCASI Celebrates 75 Years of Supporting Industry Progress
NCASI was established in an era when, throughout the US, major water quality problems could be traced to discharges of municipal and industrial wastewater. In the pulp and paper industry, it was common practice to discharge largely untreated wastes, including spent pulping liquors, into receiving waters. The results were predictable. Downstream of some pulp and paper mills, rivers were plagued by sludge beds, floating sludge mats, wind-blown drifts of foam, low dissolved oxygen, obnoxious odors, and periodic fish kills.


According to NCASI, in the early 1940s industry observers noted, “During the past 20 years, the United States pulp, paper, and paperboard industries have spent millions of dollars improving the quality of effluents and wastes discharged into the surface waters of the country. Despite the expenditures of such vast sums of money, the industry’s problem is still far from a solution. This unsatisfactory condition results from the fact that the attempts to solve the problem have been largely on an individual mill basis, in which the program has been developed primarily to meet local conditions, and in most cases the experience of the individual mill has not been available to the industry at large.”

NCASI was founded in 1943 in response to this need for the US pulp and paper industry to take a unified approach to addressing concerns about its air and water discharges. At that time, the organization was named the National Council for Stream Improvement (of the Pulp, Paper and Paperboard Industries), or NCSI. In 1956, NCSI’s research program was formally expanded to address growing concerns about air pollution. In recognition of the broader scope of its work, in 1968 the name was changed to the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI).

Now an international organization with offices in both the US and Canada, NCASI’s creation reveals the industry’s foresight and growing environmental responsibility. Over 75 years, the organization has been key to the industry’s success in meeting each significant environmental challenge it has faced.

To mark this anniversary, NCASI has created a new brand. The new brand mark combines a leaf and magnifying glass—conveying that NCASI’s expertise in identifying solutions related to environmental and forestry sustainability is derived from a focus on scientific/data-driven approaches. The new tagline—Impact. Science. Solutions.—communicates NCASI’s focus, as well as how the organization provides value to member companies.

To learn more, visit the NCASI website at