Foam on the St. Johns River (Pic via Neil Armingeon)
Foam on the St. Johns River (Pic via Neil Armingeon)

Vinyard shows ‘willingness to work’ with St. Johns Riverkeeper on Georgia-Pacific pipeline

By | 06.13.11 | 2:32 pm

Nearly five months ago, the St. Johns Riverkeeper first launched its campaign against a pipeline that will reroute much of the waste from Georgia-Pacific’s Palatka paper mill into the St. Johns River, a project the Riverkeeper says is a disaster waiting to happen. Though the Riverkeeper has received no response from Gov. Rick Scott (despite a massive email campaign and the collection of thousands of signatures against the pipeline), there may be hope for their cause yet, from the Scott-appointed head of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Last Friday, the Riverkeeper’s Neil Armingeon and Jimmy Orth met with Environmental Protection head Herschel Vinyard, who says he is willing to sit down and hear about viable alternatives to the pipeline. “While he thinks DEP and G.P. have done everything necessary to evaluate the issue and improve the quality of the effluent, he is going to give us one more chance to prove that there is another alternative to the pipeline,” says Orth.

The pipeline is the result of a 2002 order issued by an administrative law judge, requiring Georgia-Pacific to construct the pipeline if water quality standards in Rice Creek (on which the company’s Palatka paper mill sits) could not be met. During dry periods, around 95 percent of the water in Rice Creek is comprised of the mill’s effluent, which has been pumped into the creek since 1947. Because the company isn’t currently meeting color and conductivity standards, a pipeline (which will cost $40 million to construct) will reroute, and essentially dilute, the pollution.

In a June 10 letter to the Riverkeeper, Vinyard said he had previously directed Environmental Protection staff to meet with the group to discuss alternatives to the pipelines, but remained unconvinced that such alternatives existed. Environmental Protection staff will meet with them once more, on the condition that “concrete evidence” for an alternative exists:

DEP met with you are your consultant on three separate occasions: February 23, March 24 and April 4, 2011. DEP’s experienced engineers and scientists concluded that nothing presented during any of these meeting substantiated the claim that there is another viable alternative to relocating the discharge. Despite that fact, I am willing to have DEP’s District and Tallahassee personnel meet with you and your consultants again if you have concrete evidence that an alternative exists.

Orth says that although he is encouraged by Secretary Vinyard’s “willingness to work” on the issue, he disagrees “with the approach of moving on to the solutions before completely addressing the problem.”

In a written response to Vinyard’s letter, the Riverkeeper’s Armingeon said that several outstanding questions remained, which “prevent a meaningful discussion and a thorough evaluation of the potential alternatives”:

We don’t believe that a solution can be determined, and that includes the pipeline, until we have identified and evaluated all of the sources of the pollution problems.

I won’t enumerate all of them in this letter, but suffice to say that they include the presence of dioxin, its source(s), and the failed chronic toxicity tests. Until we can fully understand the sources of these pollutants, it would not be prudent to schedule a meaningful alternatives discussion.

According to his letter, Armingeon and his staff have indeed presented alternatives to the pipeline at previous meetings, but were told “they weren’t specific enough.”

Armingeon is currently compiling a list of specific outstanding issues that still remain unanswered. “Once we receive those answers, we’ll assemble our team and schedule a meeting with your staff,” writes Armingeon.

Scott’s appointment of Vinyard to head the agency tasked with protecting Florida’s environment was greeted favorably in general. With nearly a decade of environmental law experience, as well as a top position with the Jacksonville Port Authority, he is more than familiar with the problems facing Florida waterbodies. Interestingly, in his announcement of Vinyard’s appointment, Scott lauded him for previous efforts to reduce discharges to the St. Johns:

As an example of Vinyard’s focus on environmental responsibility and effective business practices, he provided counsel to BAE Systems in their recent, successful efforts to remove its treated wastewater outfall from the St. Johns River. That wastewater is now being used for irrigation purposes and eliminates a discharge to one of Florida’s most significant water bodies.

“Vinyard and his family live in Jacksonville, and I know he loves the river. I have also talked to several people that know him well and all speak highly of his character and integrity. So, I am hopeful that we will be able to overcome our differences and find a solution,” says Orth.

Below, read the full text of the Riverkeeper’s response to Vinyard:

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