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Rayonier and the Altamaha River

April 13, 2015

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) is currently evaluating a draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for the Rayonier Performance Fibers LLC facility (Rayonier) in Jesup, Georgia.

Georgia River Network (GRN) staff, members and partners have a special interest and direct relationship with the Altamaha River.

GRN has submitted a comment letter and asked EPD to reject the draft permit for many reasons.

Rayonier’s new NPDES permit must be a bold step away from the past and a step into a cleaner future for all Georgians and for healthy river flows in the Altamaha River.

A Legacy of Water Quality Problems

On June 23, 1954, Rayonier celebrated the Jesup pulp mill’s opening day.  The mill has historically produced cellulose fibers used in the manufacture of products such as rayon and cellophane, and eventually diapers and food additives, and more recently, mobile device and television parts.

In early September, 1954, there was a reported fish kill in the Altamaha River in the vicinity of Jesup, according to a U.S. Public Health Service Report.  On September 12, one week later, a second kill was reported and called “one of the greatest fishing scourges ever to occur in Georgia waters,” leaving “dead fish by the thousands” lining the Altamaha River’s banks for forty-miles between the mill’s 25,000,000 gallons per day discharge point and the Atlantic Ocean.

Per a consent decree brokered by Georgia’s Attorney General between Rayonier and three parties seeking compensation for damages to downstream private property after the 1954 fish kills, Rayonier agreed to “hold wastes dumped into the Altamaha River to quantities that will not kill fish when diluted with the river.”

One year later in 1956, “a slimy substance” began coating fishing nets downstream of Jesup.  At the time, commercial and recreational anglers blamed Rayonier for “ruining edibility and salability of fish and crustacean life in the river below the plant.”  The slime—sphaerotilus—is a naturally occurring bacteria that thrives in waters rich in nutrients.  In the Altamaha River’s case, a combination of pulp mill waste-stream by-products and low levels of dissolved oxygen contributed to a proliferation of the sphaerotilus burdening fishermen’s nets.

For about two years, Rayonier used kerosene as a foam control agent, which was present in the plant’s effluent.

Despite passage of the Georgia Water Quality Control Act (July 1, 1957), and before the federal Clean Water Act (1972), the accepted state policy and solution for pollution was dilution.

In early 1958, Rayonier doubled the mill’s production capacity, thereby increasing the mill’s total ground and surface water withdrawals to 48,000,000 gallons per day, and discharges into the Altamaha River to 50,000,000 gallons per day.

Georgia’s Environmental Agency Takes a Stand

In 1966 and because a “crude slime” continued to effect the Altamaha River, Rayonier installed a primary waste water treatment facility but only when ordered to do so by R. S. “Rock” Howard, executive secretary of the Georgia Water Quality Control board—a predecessor-agency to EPD.  And in 1967 the Water Quality Control board ordered Rayonier to install a secondary waste water treatment facility, which had still not been installed by March 1, 1970 as required.

All the while, the 25,000,000 to 50,000,000 million gallons per day discharge continued.  By all accounts and for the above reasons, since 1954, the river’s character has been forever changed according to commercial fisherman, sport anglers, conservationists, leisure seekers and state regulators.

How We Got To Today

For over a decade, according to Draft 2014 Integrated 305(b)/303(d) List: 2014 Rivers/Streams, a 20-mile stretch of the Altamaha River from ITT Rayonier to Penholoway Creek has been listed as “Assessment Pending for Designated Uses”—which in this stretch is “fishing”—because EPD has not developed “a numeric translator for the narrative criteria for color before it can be determined whether water quality standards are being met.”

In 2008 and in response to citizen complaints lodged by the Altamaha Riverkeeper, Rayonier entered into a “consent order” with EPD to reduce the color content of Rayonier’s discharge.  At the time, Rayonier’s NPDES permit did not include any discharge limits on color.  EPD had 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 was a long and complicated way of saying that Rayonier was probably illegally—according to Clean Water Act terms—discharging waste into waters of the United States.  The discharges continued while Rayonier re-tooled the mill’s production lines.  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.

In June of 2013, over 300 individuals floated over 100 miles of the Altamaha River for seven days as a part of Georgia River Network’s annual Paddle Georgia adventure.  Upstream of Jesup and Doctortown—the birds, fish and sunshine, the magnificent white sand dunes, the clear and refreshing water—made the trip spectacular.  Then, on June 20, 2013, I paddled from Jaycees Landing to Paradise Park, and past Rayonier’s discharge pipe and through miles of river that have carried Rayonier’s discharge for decades.  The river’s character changed: the water color was different.  There was a noticeable odor.

The Bottom Line

Rayonier has benefited tremendously from doing business in Georgia for more than half-a-century.  According to Rayonier’s 2013 ANNUAL REPORT, the corporation executed $1,708,000,000 in sales with a net income “attributed to Rayonier Inc.” of $372,000,000 while using the Altamaha River for free.  When compared to the previous year, this is a sizable $225,000,000 increase in total sales and a $93,000,000 increase in net income “attributed to Rayonier Inc.”  Rayonier has the resources to do the right thing and implement proven waste management technologies.

The process of perfecting the permit should not be reduced to an argument about jobs versus the environment.  If the goal is to ‘balance the environment and the economy,’ than tipping it back in the river’s court is long-overdue.

Improving the permit—and asking Rayonier to clean up the mill’s discharge—will not result in closure of the mill if the King America Finishing experience on the Ogeechee River is a guide.

EPD must incorporate explicit, and require compliance with, state narrative water quality standards and conditions found in Rule 391-3-6-.03 into Rayonier’s permit to insure compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.

Rayonier’s new NPDES permit must be a bold step away from the past and a step into a cleaner future for all Georgians and for healthy river flows in the Altamaha River.

Other Sources:

U.S. Public Health Service, “Review of Altamaha River Pollution in the Vicinity of Doctortown, Georgia,” [March 1957], Iris F. Blitch Papers, Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, The University of Georgia Libraries, Athens, Georgia.

“Thousands of Altamaha Fish Die; Jesup Plant’s Dumping Is Halted,” Atlanta Constitution, September 14, 1954, p. 1.

“Agreement Ends Fish Death Suit,” Atlanta Constitution, October 19, 1954, p. 24

“Altamaha Pollution Hit Anew,” Atlanta Constitution, February 9, 1956, p. 25.

“Baffling Altamaha Phantom is Unmasked by Scientists,” Atlanta Constitution, March 31, 1957, p. 1E.

“New Rayonier Unit Keyed to Flexibility,” New York Times, January 19, 1958, p. F1.

“Crude Slime covers Giant Altamaha River,” Atlanta Constitution, March 13, 1970, p. 1A.

“Jesup Mill Faces Action: State office Turns to Courts As Pollution Deadline Passes,” Atlanta Constitution, April 3, 1970, p. 14A.

-Chris Manganiello

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