Construction is under way on a Chinese company’s $2 billion manufacturing plant on the James River in Virginia’s Chesterfield County. Though state officials recruited what the governor called “the largest greenfield project ever done in the United States,” environmental advocates remain wary that the massive plant can proceed without degrading the Chesapeake Bay tributary.
Once constructed, Shandong Tranlin Paper Co., which is doing business in the United States under the name Vastly, said the 850-acre facility will employ about 2,000 people by 2020. But the plant — and those jobs — won’t be coming for many months or possibly years, as company executives wade through a prolonged process to collect the 20-plus permits necessary to operate the sprawling facility.
The Chinese business has more than 200 patents on its complex process to turn wheat straw from local farms into pulp for paper products and soil amendments that are sold back to farmers — all under the premise that its manufacturing is cleaner than what’s typically used to make paper from trees.
Historically, pulp and paper mills have been one of the dirtiest industries in the world, releasing a variety of noxious pollutants into the air and discharging nutrients and dissolved organic matter and other contaminants into the water.
Vastly executives say their process does not use the bleaching chemicals that have posed environmental issues at other mills. And they get humic acid for their fertilizer product from the straw, which company representatives say is a cleaner alternative than deriving it from coal, as similar plants have done.
Bob Burnley, former director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, which will issue many of the company’s permits, was intrigued enough by the project to become a senior adviser to the company’s CEO, in part to help Vastly navigate the permitting minefield.
Vastly will need to purchase credits for nitrogen and some phosphorous to maintain its wastewater discharge permit, for example, because the state decided a decade ago, during Burnley’s tenure, that the Chesapeake Bay had reached its capacity for nitrogen and phosphorous discharges from such industrial facilities. No industrial facilities requiring new credits have cropped up since then.
Peggy Sanner, senior attorney and assistant director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia office, said she still has a lot of questions about the potential source of those credits and whether the trades will ensure the state stays under its pollution cap.
“We have been committed from the outset to ensuring that the cap is protected and that no discharges exceeding it are allowed,” she said, adding that she is, for now, “cautiously optimistic.”
Despite the regulatory hurdles, Burnley said, this company “is bringing a technology to the United States that doesn’t exist here that I think is really going to demonstrate to all of us how manufacturing should be done.”
Yue Zhu, director of strategic development, said it might take 18 more months to acquire the permits alone, and then another two years for construction to be complete. The plant would then open around 2019 to produce between 200 and 400 metric tons of paper products per year.
At full capacity, the plant will also produce about a half-million metric tons of its “biostimulant” fertilizer product. Vastly already has a sales license from the commonwealth, where farmers and home growers can now purchase the China-made equivalent of their product, called “BetterRoots.”
Though one of the company’s “earth restorative” goals is to eventually reduce the amount of chemically derived fertilizer farmers use on their crops by replacing it with this product, Zhu said much research is still needed to ensure farmers’ yields wouldn’t be affected.
“That’s our goal — to encourage more farmers to switch to an organic biostimulant like ours and reduce their chemical fertilizer, but we don’t want to rush into it,” he said.
Kevin Engel, owner and operator of Engel Family Farms, who grows corn, soybeans, wheat and other plants on land in 17 Virginia counties, is one of the farmers who has tried the Vastly product. He said his initial results with the product were “positive” and merited further study.
Lower James Riverkeeper Jamie Brunkow said his group is “cautiously monitoring” Vastly’s progress through the regulatory hurdles to construction to ensure that new industry doesn’t undermine efforts to improve water quality in the river. The plant is just upstream of Dominion Virginia Power’s Chesterfield Power Station, which recently acquired new permits to drain treated water from coal ash impoundments into the river.
That permit process revealed that two larval Atlantic sturgeon had once been caught in the water intake of the Dominion plant, which prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service to propose that the portion of the James that includes both plants be designated critical habitat for the endangered species.
In China, Tranlin has been growing for three decades largely because it created a market for the straw byproduct from farmers’ wheat harvests, which had typically been burned in the field and created pollution. Zhu said the country was “looking for a solution.”
Tranlin is so confident in its process there — and the cleanliness of its treated wastewater stream — that the water is first discharged into a pond filled with Chinese golden fish, which are sensitive to water quality.
“In the past 30 years, we’ve never had a single accident with our fish,” Zhu said.