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Florida Waste Pipeline Aimed at St. Johns River

August 1, 2008

By Savannah Morning News, Ga.

Aug. 1–JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Construction is about to start on a pollution pipeline from a paper mill to the St. Johns River after years of delays and legal battles, and the state’s environmental agency says it can’t stop it.

Some environmental activists want to fight Georgia-Pacific’s mill outside Palatka, from which wastewater would flow downstream toward Jacksonville. But they also blame Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection for making an agreement with the mill years ago that led to a court order mandating the construction.

“I lay part of this at the feet of DEP,” St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon said. “It’s frustrating; it’s disappointing. But are we surprised that DEP has just basically given Georgia-Pacific the green light to put millions of gallons of pollution into the St. Johns River? That’s what they’re good at.”

DEP doesn’t have a choice now about whether the pipeline should be built, said Melissa Long, an administrator in the agency’s water facilities office in Jacksonville.

“It’s not in our control at this point. … A lot of those decisions were made back in 2002,” when the court order was written, Long said.

Building the 4-mile pipeline would let Georgia-Pacific stop discharging into Rice Creek, a much smaller waterway where the plant violates clean-water standards. But it would also mean diluting the wastewater in the river, which flows to Jacksonville.

Factories that violate clean-water standards are normally allowed to keep operating while they develop improvement plans.

State and federal agencies essentially wagered in 2001 that the mill could clean up its wastewater enough to keep pumping into Rice Creek. The company signed an agreement and made $200 million worth of upgrades prescribed by the state and by paper mill specialists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But the wastewater is still too dark and salty to remain in the creek, according to an analysis the company provided to DEP last month. Excessive saltiness can harm some fish in a freshwater creek, and water that’s too dark can affect underwater plants that need light to live.

“Everyone’s hope was that at the end of the day … we would be able to keep our discharge in Rice Creek,” Georgia-Pacific spokesman Jeremy Alexander said.

When the upgrades were being proposed in 2001, Georgia-Pacific worried that agencies might keep requiring indefinite improvements, at higher and higher costs, Long said. The company wanted a guarantee that it could build the pipeline if the government’s plan didn’t work, she said.

Alexander said the mill’s management has asked Georgia-Pacific’s board of directors to approve building the pipeline, which would cost another $35 million. The administrative order that mandates the pipeline also spells out a timetable in which the line should be in use by September 2010.

That order was issued after environmentalists sued unsuccessfully to stop the 2001 agreement, which was approved by former DEP Secretary David Struhs.

Activists ridiculed Struhs for the agreement and for his agency’s cooperation with mills on projects to build a 10-mile pipeline to wetlands near Pensacola and another on the Fenholloway River near the Gulf of Mexico. That criticism increased after he resigned in 2004 to become a vice president of International Paper, which owned the plant near Pensacola.

Struhs was vacationing Wednesday and did not return messages left by telephone and e-mail.

Georgia-Pacific’s mill, which has about 1,050 employees and is a force in Putnam County’s economy, has discharged into Rice Creek since the 1940s.

The company proposed the pipeline in the 1990s as a way to address changing water-quality standards, but environmental groups argued the correct answer was to pollute less.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Savannah Morning News, Ga.

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