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Clean Water Is Not a Luxury

March 4, 2014

On November 26, 2013, Altamaha Riverkeeper (ARK) filed a notice of intent to sue Rayonier Performance Fibers for violating the federal Clean Water Act (CWA).  More specifically, ARK – represented by Green Law, Stack & Associates and Southern Environmental Law Center – asserts that discharges from Rayonier’s Jesup mill into the river exceed the company’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit limits for color and odor.

This notice of intent to file a CWA suit would be at least the second in Georgia in as many years involving an illegal discharge and NPDES permit.  The other notable action involved King America Finishing’s (KAF) illegal discharge into the Ogeechee River.  KAF eventually settled out-of-court with dozens of individual property owners (for undisclosed terms) and Ogeechee Riverkeeper.  The company agreed to spend more than $6 million to clean-up the river after operating an illegal discharge for at least five years.

What’s wrong with the Altamaha?  You can see the color from the air.  I have written about the Altamaha and Rayonier’s history previously – start here first, then read the Georgia Water Coalition’s 2013 Dirty Dozen Report, and finally read about the origins of the CWA.

Why do permits matter?  NPDES permits are required of all point-source discharges into waters of the United States, and must be renewed every five years.  While the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is primarily responsible for implementing the CWA, EPA delegates regulatory authority (i.e. permitting, enforcement, etc.) to Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD).  Rayonier’s NPDES permit expired in 2006 and has been administratively extended.  Rayonier submitted an application for a new permit to EPD in 2012.

A Forest for the Trees: Rayonier does not just turn trees into fiber; they also own, lease or manage more than 2.7 million acres of land under the trees in the U.S. and New Zealand (including about 700,000 acres in Georgia).  The company is also selling Georgia coastal property, and converting old timberland into residential, commercial and industrial properties.  On January 27, 2014 – about two months after ARK announced the intention to file suit – Rayonier officially split into two corporate identities: Rayonier, Inc. will be a timber and real estate entity; and a performance fiber entity.  ARK’s notice of intent was “not even a factor” in Rayonier’s corporate division, according to an executive quoted in the AJC.

Triple Threat: Given the toxic chemical spill in West Virginia, the toxic coal ash pond collapse in North Carolina and illegal toxic discharges in Georgia, the time has come excise undue corporate influence from the regulatory ecosystem.  Many of these cases have demonstrated that industry cannot be solely depended upon to self-report critical information after spills (Freedom Industries’ executives “did not skim far enough into” a critical internal email), manage their own disaster sites (Duke Energy initially denied a second leak), or disclose new or changed discharges (for five years).

These un-natural disasters – two of which continue to unfold – are not natural by any stretch of the imagination: each example demonstrates why regulation and robust oversight of private industry is necessary to protect clean water.  (To make matters worse, South Carolina legislators are attempting to change a state law and limit citizens’ ability to sue polluters.) The alternative – a regulatory system that serves “customers” as opposed to the public – is clearly not working.

For more information on ARK’s permit challenge, follow Do Better Rayonier.

-Chris Manganiello

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