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Permit Updates: Ogeechee and Altamaha

August 27, 2012

The Ogeechee Riverkeeper, clean water lovers, and people who support healthy economies have ridden a roller-coaster this summer.  One of the highpoints?  On July 23, 2012, Bulloch County Superior Court Judge John R. Turner ruled that the Ogeechee Riverkeeper has the legal right and standing to challenge a consent order signed behind closed doors between the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) and Chicago-based King America Finishing (KAF).  The consent order was crafted in a back-room deal in 2011 after the state’s largest fish kill.

In the Trough: The order did not clean up the river and fish started dying again almost exactly one year later.  The Effingham County Emergency Management Agency closed the river for two months to swimming and advised against eating fish from the Ogeechee.  Elected state representative Jan Tankersley (R-Brooklet) thinks the “Ogeechee River can’t sustain itself,” while Gov. Nathan Deal’s appointed EPD Director Jud Turner continues to assert the “river is protected.”

Permission to Pollute: EPD issued a new National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit (NPDES) for KAF’s operations on August 10, 2012.  Any industry that discharges waste into waters of the United States of America must obtain a NPDES permit under the terms of the Clean Water Act as administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, or in the case of Georgia, by EPD.  Discussion about KAF’s permit has been a public process: EPD held a public hearing on June 26, 2012 and accepted written comments.  Despite hearing from thousands of people who requested stricter limits on formaldehyde, ammonia, and other pollutants, EPD issued the new permit anyway.  Public outcry has, however, induced U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson’s (R) office to review the case and determine if federal intervention is required.

Rayonier and the Altamaha: This is a story that dates back to 1954 when Rayonier Inc. opened the Jesup pulp mill.  The details vary but the storyline is not isolated to Georgia.  Geography, hydrology, and cheap (non-union) labor have always influenced the location of pulp, paper, and chemical facilities.

In the southeast – or at least in the towns I have lived, visited or studied – major corporations looked for some combination of the following before setting-up shop: close proximity to trees (where the pulp and cellulose fibers come from), a fresh and high-quality water source (often free ground or surface water), and a river to haul industrial effluent away free of charge.  Facilities that delivered jobs to desperate areas were also rewarded with generous tax incentives, property deals, and in at least one Georgia inducement agreement, the city of Savannah’s 1935 pledge to Union Bag to secure legislative protection from – and expend up to $5,000 defending the company in – prospective pollution-related litigation, according to The Water Lords (1971).  This poor balance between the economy and environment is far from being “history.”

Rayonier Inc.’s (NYSE: RYN) international headquarters is located in Jacksonville, Florida.  In Georgia, the company manages 730,000 acres of timber.  The Rayonier Performance Fibers LLC mill in Jesup employs over 800 people who collectively operate a single fluff-pulp production line and two specialty fiber feedstock production lines.  The end product – or feedstock – is sold to customers who eventually manufacture components for air/oil filters, disposable diapers, pharmaceuticals, food and flat screen TVs and monitors.  The company is currently converting the mill to produce only specialty fibers (for products like TVs) where the profits lie – and do thus away with fluff pulp (diapers).  The Jesup mill – according to Rayonier’s NPDES renewal application materials – “is the only producer” of specialty fibers for certain customers who manufacture specific products.  Jesup is one cog in the global supply chain.

Water: The Jesup mill pumps near perfect and high-quality groundwater from the Floridian aquifer to turn trees into fiber, and then discharges nearly 60 million gallons per day of treated industrial wastewater into the Altamaha River.  In 2008, in response to citizen complaints lodged by the Altamaha Riverkeeper, Rayonier entered into a “consent order” with EPD to reduce the color content of that discharge.

Why did Rayonier enter into a consent order?  At the time, Rayonier’s NPDES permit did not include any discharge limits on color.  EPD determined that “the color of Rayonier’s discharge had the potential to be a violation of” state and federal Clean Water Act “standards and to cause other objectionable conditions that could interfere with the uses of the river.”  This is a long and complicated way of saying that Rayonier was probably illegally – according to Clean Water Act terms – discharging waste into state waters.  That consent order is set to expire in March 2016.

In July 2012, Rayonier Performance Fibers LLC submitted an application packet to EPD to renew the Jesup Mill’s NPDES permit.  EPD has not yet produced and released the permit for public review or scheduled a hearing.  You can find all the documents and updates regarding the comment period and process on the Altamaha Riverkeeper’s website.  There are a lot of moving parts associated with Rayonier’s permit application, but the outcome must be a cleaner, fishable, and swimmable Altamaha River.  Rayonier understands the value of clean water and can afford to be a good neighbor; the corporation has increased dividends paid to shareholders eight times in the last ten years.

For those who live, work, and play along the Altamaha River (including those who participated in Paddle Georgia 2012): your participation in this comment process will be critical.  You know what is at stake.  If you need a reminder, view “Rayonier Pollutes the Mighty Altamaha,” take a gander at Brian Brown’s aerial photos, or read about one family’s experience.  Let’s rebalance what has been tilted in Big Industry’s direction for some time back into the Big River’s court.

-Chris Manganiello

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2012 1:18 pm

    What I found is disturbing and illustrates one of the reasons we need to support our Riverkeepers. One of the first things I looked at on the EPD website was a section entitled “ what’s new at EPD “. Presumably this would give me a snapshot of current issues. The first and most current entry was on the “ Ogeechee River Fish Kill-May 2012 “ which was posted June 6, 2012. I found this somewhat encouraging as the Ogeechee River and the discharge of King America Finishing top the Georgia Water Coalition’s Dirty Dozen list. I plan to tackle the Ogeechee issue in future posts but do not want to divert from fully exploring the Rayonier issue . The what’s new section appears to cover about the last year and I could find no reference to any requested changes to the Rayonier consent order here. I decided to look under the “Rules and Laws” Section and came across” 391-1-3 Public Participation in Enforcement of Environmental Statutes”.

  2. September 21, 2014 2:51 am

    Wonderful article! We are linking to this great post on our website.
    Keep up the great writing.


  1. Clean Water Is Not a Luxury | Georgia Water Wire
  2. Rayonier and the Altamaha River | Georgia Water Wire

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