Proposed paper/pulp mill has groups drawing battle lines

David Fettig | Managing Editor

Published September 1, 1989  | September 1989 issue

Sometimes economic development collides with environmental concerns before the issue has even taken shape—literally.

That's what is happening in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, on the Keweenaw Bay near Houghton, where the James River Corp. has proposed to build a paper or pulp mill that is still about four years from completion.

  • There are no smokestacks belching dark clouds.
  • No strange smells hanging in the air.
  • No current jobs on the line.
  • Not one tree has fallen.

And James River is about two years from even beginning construction. Indeed, formal site plans are still more than a year away and the company has yet to begin most environmental studies.

Even so, hundreds of people—pro and con—have already showed up at community meetings; local groups have been formed and politicians are joining the fray in what is shaping up as a jobs vs. environment issue.

Lynn Sandberg, former woodlands general manager of Mead Publishing Papers and a member of the local Area Development Committee, said James River's plan for the site at Arnheim would be an economic boon to the area, bringing as many as 400 new jobs, spurring formation of other small businesses and increasing the tax base—all without destroying the tranquil beauty of the Keweenaw Bay.

But an organizer of a local group opposed to the proposed plant, Kraig Klungness, said James River would not be held accountable for the operation of its plant and doubts pollution control efforts would be successful. He also said the area forests could not support the plant's need for wood.

Klungness' group is called Friends of the Land of Keweenaw (FOLK), and the group also disputes the claims of economic bounty. "I don't think it's going to be all it's played up to be," he said.

FOLK believes the jobs created by the plant are a bad investment of $1.2 billion—its projected cost. Klungness said more and better jobs should be available for such a large sum of money. A new college, for example, would demand a higher skill level than a paper mill, Klungness said. Higher-level jobs pay better salaries, he said, and that is better for the community.

"Our group wants good quality jobs, but we don't think the mills is a good way to do it," he said.

Besides, Klungness fears the area will become politically, economically and socially dependent on one large company—and that could have negative impacts.

Sandberg agrees with Klungness about attracting other industry to the region. But, he asks, what would the members of FOLK suggest? "We've been trying for years," Sandberg said.

And, Sandberg is incredulous about the idea that the mill's large size portends problems for the area. "That's a new argument to me. Why aren't they good? Bigness isn't necessarily bad, it's how it's handled—whether it's a bank or government agency or whatever."

Sandberg concedes that U.P. residents are rightly sensitive about pollution—and he includes himself in that group—especially when the Keweenaw Bay area has never been directly affected by pollution. However, he doesn't think the presence of a paper or pulp mill will destroy that beauty or affect tourist traffic. He lists Rhinelander, Eau Claire, Wausau and Green Bay, Wis., as well as Escanaba and Manestique in the U.P. as just a few places that have supported the paper industry and not suffered tourist reductions.

Opponents of the proposed mill have pointed to bleach kraft mills, which produce the toxic dioxin as a byproduct when pulp is bleached white, as the type of plant they fear will be constructed. However, John Burke, director of government affairs for James River in Richmond, Va., said the company has not yet decided what type of facility will be built in the U.P.

There are currently 104 pulp mills throughout the world, Burke said, some bleach kraft and some sulfite mills. James River's proposed plant in the U.P., however, would benefit from further advances in technology, he said, and the pollution-reduction potential of that proposed plant should not be compared with older facilities. James River Corp., a 20-year-old company with $6 billion in annual sales, employs about 40,000 in about 140 worldwide locations.

"If we didn't think the pulping technology would advance far enough, we'd put in the paper side [of the process] first," he said.

Of course, he acknowledged, local residents have been uncomfortable with those uncertainties.

"That's to be expected—part of industrial life, and I understand. Something's going to be in their backyard and they want to know about it," Burke said.

But members of FOLK are more than just curious to know about the proposed plant—they don't want to see it built at all. They believe the region will retain its greatest economic benefit by maintaining its environmental purity.

"I don't think this area is an appropriate place" for a mill, Klungness said of the 1,000-acre site near Arnheim, which has been pegged as a "world class site" for pulp and papermaking by the Area Development Committee. "Keweenaw is one of the largest pristine bays in the area—and that is its greatest value."