Georgia-Pacific and environmental activists face off over St. Johns pollution 1 - Florida Independent

Monday evening’s Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board meeting went on much like any other City Hall meeting: An agenda was read, minutes were discussed and several city ordinances were voted on. But yesterday’s minutes didn’t go off entirely without a hitch.

One of the topics up for discussion — a proposed pipeline that would essentially redistribute paper company Georgia-Pacific‘s effluence — became heated.

G-P Public Relations Coordinator Jeremy Alexander showed up to Monday’s meeting armed with plenty of statistical improvements to defend his company, but G-P still met with animosity.

The past summer has been a tense one for lovers of the St. Johns River. First, a rash of fish kills drew state attention from politicians and environmentalists alike. Later, a string of bird deaths and talks of toxic algal blooms led many to grow scared of what was lurking in their river. Most recently, a strange foam has taken over large portions of the river — the foam is, in some areas, as thick as 3 inches.

Many have characterized the recent outbreaks as byproducts of heavy home fertilizer use and an excess of non-native plants. But big industries like G-P and utilities company JEA have been under the microscope as well. Both companies have long been accused of using the St. Johns as a dumping ground of sorts — a place to dispose of chemicals like nitrogen and phosphorus, which ultimately lead to the appearance of harmful and oftentimes toxic blue-green algal blooms.

G-P’s Alexander was straightforward while presenting the board with the many improvements his company has made in recent years. He spoke highly of G-P’s efforts to combat the pollution (the company has spent more than $200 million dollars on improving its Palatka mill) but also acknowledged that there was more to be done.

The company’s Palatka mill began discharging waste into Rice Creek, a tributary of the St. Johns River, in 1947. Since then, the waste has all but taken over. In fact, G-P’s waste comprises 95 percent of Rice Creek during the dry season.

According to Alexander’s presentation, the company has made a host of positive environmental impacts in recent years. With the use of state-of-the-art technology, the company has reduced process water volume by 40 percent, nitrogen by 54 percent and phosphorus by 73 percent. But G-P’s attempts to lessen plant’s impact haven’t been entirely sufficient.

The company still isn’t meeting water-quality-based effluent limits for color, conductivity or WET (Whole Effluent Toxicity). WET tests are highly important, since they test marine species for exposure to toxins.

According to Alexander, G-P has seen “no impact on life or mortality on any species” and “no acute impacts whatsoever” in terms of toxicity. But FDEP Northeast Director Greg Strong told the board that “high-volume sampling results called into question [Georgia-Pacific’s] progress.” Strong was referencing a sample found positive for dioxin, a cancer-causing substance produced during the mill’s bleaching process.

When questioned by the board as to whether dioxin compounds were an issue in Rice Creek, Strong said, “It’s an issue in the sense that we found it in the sampling.” Strong said that the FDEP isn’t sure whether the water would still test positive for compound dioxins or if that was a one-time occurence, but he felt that extra measures taken by Georgia-Pacific could help “lower the potential for compound dioxins in the effluent.” Those sample results led to the FDEP’s letter to Georgia-Pacific requesting additional improvements and, eventually, talk of a pipeline to the St. Johns.

The rationale for the pipeline, an 18-month project that should be operational by October 2012, is that it would funnel the pollution to a different area, where G-P’s runoff would then be absorbed in a larger water mass. Alexander says that the larger water body would have a “better capacity to assimilate” because of its volume and faster flow.

Many area environmentalists have spoken out against the pipeline project as counterintuitive and unreasonable.

During a public comment period following Alexander’s presentation, St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon spoke out passionately against the pipeline, saying that it would merely “shift damage to another [area] that is already damaged.” One board member called the pipeline solution akin to “adding more water to the scotch just so you can stand it.”

Armingeon showed several photos of parts of the St. Johns recently plagued by algal blooms, “otherworldly” foams and fish kills, and spoke of toxins found in Orangedale — all symptoms, he said, of the poor health of the river. Though he was quick not to place all of the blame on Georgia-Pacific, Armingeon did mention that they were second only to JEA in terms of industry runoff: “Georgia-Pacific isn’t the only cause, but they are one of the causes.”

Although Armingeon tried not to point fingers, he didn’t mince words when it came to discussing G-P’s pipeline proposal. One of the final slides in his presentation called the G-P Pipeline a “deathblow to the St. Johns” and he was clear in his message that the choice was up to the company itself

Georgia-Pacific has a choice: Stay in Rice Creek or kill the St. Johns. … The company could meet water quality standards for an additional $60 million. Is the St. Johns worth $60 million to Georgia-Pacific? Are we happy with them externalizing the cost [by building a pipeline?] How much are we willing to watch our river continue to degrade? [The improvements G-P has made] aren’t working, because the river continues to be sick. We are against the pipeline and we will continue to fight it.

Karen Ahlers, a member of the Putnam County Environmental Council, also made strong remarks when speaking against G-P: “There’s no denying that Georgia-Pacific has unbelievably enriched our economy, and I would never ask that they shut down the plant. Georgia-Pacific is welcome to stay in our neighborhood. We just ask that they be good neighbors.”

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