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How Domtar Improved Water Quality, Fish Health in Canada’s Thompson River

Domtar’s Kamloops, British Columbia mill is located on the Thompson River | Image credit: Domtar

Flowing through south-central British Columbia is a crisp river, idyllically flanked by black cliffs.

But in the 1970s, the clear water of the Thompson River took on a brown hue and bubbled with foam. Rocks were covered with a thick slime. Area leaders grew concerned that a harmful algal bloom might be to blame, which had potential to harm ecology, area residents and the river’s 24 species of fish, including salmon and rainbow trout.

An investigation began into the effects of industrial and municipal discharge – particularly from the Domtar’s Kamloops pulp mill and the City of Kamloops.

“There was definitely concern back in the ‘70s about the large algae bloom,” said Kristin Dangelmaier, environmental manager for Domtar’s Kamloops mill. “As a result, the Kamloops Mill became fully engaged to understand what was happening in the river. What came out of that engagement is a historic monitoring program that has been going for more than 40 years and today includes Domtar and the federal, provincial and local governments to ensure the quality of the Thompson River water for residents and the aquatic ecosystem.”

Take and Give

Domtar’s Kamloops mill opened in 1965 and relies heavily on the Thompson River for its water supply. In fact, 94 percent of the water Domtar uses at all of its pulp and paper mills in 2016 was sourced from lakes and rivers. After use, the company treats and returns about 90 percent of water to the watersheds. Some of the used water evaporates into the atmosphere while small amounts remain it its products. The water is also reused an average of ten times at a pulp mill throughout the manufacturing process.

But with the good fortune of ample water supply comes a great responsibility. As Domtar works to innovate and grow its business, it is also mindful of its duty to be a good steward of water resources, an effort the company highlighted in its recently released Sustainability Report.

The effort toward efficient and responsible use of water has Domtar developing models to better understand the cost of using water in its operations to help lower manufacturing costs and mitigate water risks.

Water programs, such as the one at Kamloops, are the impetus for improvements across the Domtar system. Since 2012, the company has reduced discharge of Absorbable Organic Halides by 11 percent, Biochemical Oxygen Demand discharges by two percent, and Total Suspended Solids discharges by 10 percent.

Testing and Tweaks

Study of the Thompson River’s health began modestly in 1979 but grew to become a multi-stakeholder program that involves months of work to collect water, fish, plant and bug samples, test the specimens, and compile the resulting data. In 2005, stakeholders began producing an annual report on their findings and the river’s health. The 2017 edition was released earlier this month.

Results from the initial studies indicated that even very low levels of phosphorous in the Thompson River triggered algae growth. While phosphorous is naturally occurring in the river, a delicate balance is needed to maintain good ecological health.

Initially it was assumed that the Kamloops Mill was solely responsible for the algae growth. Phosphorus, after all, comes from wood and when a tree is turned to pulp, phosphorous naturally becomes liberated in the bleaching process and trace amounts wind up in the river. But phosphorous also comes from agricultural and human waste, which meant that all users of the river needed to do more to clean and treat water before returning it to the river.

“There wasn’t a simple solution,” Dangelmaier said. “It wasn’t like there was a huge algal bloom and we stopped adding phosphorous and the bloom shrank. We made several adjustments to find the right balance. We’ve learned that algae are naturally occurring but can be highly influenced by people’s actions.”

Continued Commitment

Along the Thompson River, samples are collected annually over a six-month period. The samples are sent to a lab and stakeholders work with a third-party consultant to review results. Costs are shared among companies, communities and government agencies.

The coordination effort was the brainchild of Robert Grace, environmental impact assessment biologist for the British Columbia Ministry of Environment from 1984-2011. Now retired, Grace, 63, is credited as the coordination mastermind of the river’s monitoring and for creating an efficient system that would save all stakeholders time and money.

“We got a lot more done with no additional money with the coordinated effort,” Grace said. “Everyone involved is doing the best they can for the environment and it’s been an extremely successful program.”

At Domtar’s Kamloops mill, technology and manufacturing has changed and no longer resembles the mill of the 1970s, Dangelmaier said. Working smarter has not only improved production at the mill but the health of the river.

Still, Domtar is not resting on its laurels. Instead, it commits time and resources to the annual work of monitoring the river’s health. From October through March, employees travel long distances in order to collect samples for water chemistry, water nutrients, algae growth, bug population abundance and bug species.

And because the Thompson River is the largest tributary of the 854-mile long, salmon-spawning Fraser River - the longest river in British Columbia and 10th longest in Canada - the provincial and federal government strictly oversee the waterway.

Sponsored by 
Domtar.

“The Kamloops mill has been operating since 1965,” Dangelmaier said. “We now have decades of commitment to the ongoing research and monitoring of the Thompson River’s health. And the monitoring – with the level of participation and 40+ years of work – is truly unique. But we depend on the Thompson River for our livelihoods, and for its environmental and socio-economic importance.”

For more sustainability stories about Domtar, its people, products, partnerships, industry and communities, visit Domtar Newsroom. Additional information about Domtar’s sustainability work, including the 2017 Sustainability Report, may be found here.


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