A “mysterious foam” that appeared on the surface of the St. Johns River this summer

Monday evening’s meeting of the Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board once again featured a face-off between environmentalists and industry.

The St. Johns Riverkeeper’s Neil Armingeon gave a short presentation concerning the implementation of a proposed pipeline that would essentially reroute Georgia-Pacific‘s waste from Rice Creek to the much larger St. Johns River. Armingeon, who has been vocal about his opposition to the pipeline for several years, sarcastically titled his PowerPoint “The St. John’s Summer: What We’re Doing Is Working!” The phrase sat above a large photo of a belly-up fish.

Armingeon called the presentation his “rebuttal” to the countless industry reps who argue that the river is fine in its current state, and said that Georgia-Pacific still has some “outstanding issues” to deal with before a pipeline can be constructed: “The dioxin issue has not been resolved. I don’t believe [studies] that say … the concentration is such that we shouldn’t worry. We don’t buy that.” Armingeon also pointed out that Georgia-Pacific has had issues with chronic toxicity to address: “When organisms are exposed to that affluent, frankly, some of them die.”

Though he acknowledged that his organization is often lumped in the category of environmentalist groups “trying to collapse the Florida economy” by insisting on stricter environmental standards, Armingeon said that the river should be considered an important component of that economy: “The business in Pensacola is off by 27 percent. Without [clean water,] our economy will tank.”

Jeremy Alexander, public affairs manager for Georgia-Pacific, responded by saying that his company has gone above and beyond its environmental requirements: “We’ve been complying with 100 percent of the law, 100 percent of the time.” Alexander was also quick to point out that the pipeline was not the brainchild of Georgia-Pacific execs, but instead the result of four weeks of expert testimony that resulted in an Administrative Order requiring the pipeline be built.

Currently, Georgia-Pacific does not meet environmental requirements for color or conductivity (the water’s ability to conduct an electrical current), which, ironically enough, is partly the result of environmental improvements made at the company’s Palatka mill. Georgia-Pacific has spent upwards of $200 million on improving the mill, which now filters the waste it spills into Rice Creek and uses less water as a result. Less water means a higher concentration of salt, which leads to problems with conductivity.

With the implementation of a pipeline, Georgia-Pacific will be able to fully comply with all environmental standards in Rice Creek, but the St. Johns River could be at risk as a result.

When one board member remarked that the public had gotten involved with the issue largely as a result of the work of groups like the Riverkeeper, Alexander was quick to give credit to Florida’s regulatory agencies, pointing out that the pipeline was approved because of efforts by the EPA and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. This statement elicited a comment from concerned board member Gary Bowers: “A pipeline might’ve been the best technology in 1993, but is it in 2010?”

Greg Strong, the FDEP’s Northeast director, was careful not to point blame at Georgia-Pacific and industries like it, saying the company only contributed to around 2 percent of the nutrient load in St. Johns. (The rest, he says, is the result of municipalities and stormwater run-off.) He did, however, say that the FDEP is earnestly looking through a list of the company’s responses to a Request for Additional Information (.pdf) sent in September, but not quite ready to make a final judgment regarding the pipeline: “At this point, the FDEP is not ready to [decide] whether or not to ahead with the pipeline. … We want to be cautious; we want to be thorough.”

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