CHESTER, Virginia -- Philip Morris USA on Tuesday unveiled a new wastewater treatment system the cigarette maker said will cut down on pollution discharged from its processing plant into the James River.
The $6 million project will use 48 acres of man-made wetlands to filter nutrients in the wastewater discharged by the company's Park 500 facility, which reconstitutes loose tobacco into tobacco sheets for manufacturing.
"We expect to see even further improvements in the already significant reductions we've achieved in our nutrient levels at Park 500," said John R. Nelson, the Richmond-based company's president of operations and technology. "That's great for the James River and Chesapeake Bay. These are natural resources that thousands of our Richmond-area employees enjoy."
When completed next summer, nearly 1.8 million gallons of treated wastewater a day will move through a series of ponds with native trees and shrubs. The plant life and microbes will break down nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous before it reaches the river, the company said.
Excessive levels of the nutrients in the water can cause algae blooms and have other adverse impacts on aquatic life, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Philip Morris' plant has long been a source of frustration for environmental groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has challenged state permits that allow the maker of Marlboro and other top cigarette brands to dump wastewater into the river. The foundation has claimed the permit authorizes the discharge of excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus into the James River.
Foundation officials refused to comment Tuesday because of the pending litigation.
The company's current permit allows for the discharge of 10,000 pounds of phosphorus and 167,000 pounds of nitrogen per year, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality. Last year, Philip Morris discharged 4,400 pounds of phosphorus and 72,200 pounds of nitrogen.
Philip Morris officials said that from 2001 to 2006 the company voluntarily reduced its total nitrogen discharge into the river by 46 percent. The division of New York-based Altria Group Inc. estimates the new system will reduce its nitrogen levels by an additional 13 percent and phosphorus levels by 34 percent, based on initial studies.
"We're not sure how much more we'll be able to reduce because this is very new technology," Nelson said. "We're hopeful ... but we're not sure, we'll have to see how it works."
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said the system represents an "innovative and proactive" approach to dealing with discharge into waterways.
"This is a first-of-a-kind facility here in Virginia and I think it will be used as a model for others," Kaine said. "Projects like this will really help us meet our goals of river and bay cleanliness."
Virginia, along with Maryland, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and the EPA, have pledged to improve the bay's water, its oyster population, its underwater grasses and other environmental indicators by 2010.
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