Pollution in the St. Johns River (Pic by deadgirlsdontdance, via Flickr)

Environmentalists and researchers have long felt fear when confronted with a proposed pipeline that will carry waste away from a Palatka paper mill and into the St. Johns River. For at least one scientist, it’s a fear of the unknown.

The St. Johns Riverkeeper, the independent watchdog agency for the lower river basin, worries that the effluent might contain cancer-causing dioxins — a claim backed up by scientific research. But others, like Lucinda Sonnenberg, a researcher at Jacksonville University, are more concerned with what else might be in the water.

Because Georgia-Pacific could not meet color and conductivity standards in Rice Creek, where it has discharged its waste for the last 65 years, the company was ordered to construct a pipeline from its Palatka mill into the St. Johns River, the idea being that the pollution would be somewhat diluted.

Sonnenberg has spent a lot of time examining the effluent coming out of Georgia-Pacific’s Palatka mill, and was contracted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to review the company’s efforts to improve its effluent so that it could continue to be discharged into Rice Creek.

“What concerns me outside of my work with the DEP is the other contaminants whose source we don’t know,” Sonnenberg says.

“According to the DEP, at some point … dioxin in fish in Rice Creek was an issue,” says Sonnenberg. “I would venture to speak for my colleagues at the DEP, that there have certainly been concerns with dioxins in the past. Otherwise, I’m not sure what the impetus was of the department to instigate additional studies.”

A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection admits that, historically, “dioxin was a part of [Georgia-Pacific]‘s waste stream” but says that it was “fixed with new technologies.”

“[The company] upgraded their bleaching sequence in 2001 to replace elemental chlorine with chlorine dioxide,” says Dee Ann Miller, a spokesperson for the department. “This conversion to a much more protective method of pulp treatment is considered to be one of the best methods to address dioxin in pulp and paper mill discharges. Improvements have been seen in fish tissue sampling for dioxin and the Florida Department of Health reviewed fish tissue samples collected and analyzed from Rice Creek and the St. Johns River and determined the levels found do not constitute a potential health hazard.”

Studying dioxins can prove difficult, though — especially with the state’s regulatory climate. Sonnenberg tells of one instance in which a study found that there were levels of dioxins in the wastewater that exceeded the permit limit established by the state, but the study, though conducted by the EPA, was not an EPA-approved method for testing dioxins.

“Here’s where the crux is: We have this really weird anomaly in our dioxin regulations,” she says. “The water quality standard concentration is 1,000 times less than the lowest level that we can measure. Or put another way, the lowest level that we can measure is 1,000 times higher than the water quality standard. … So you can have two things that are absolutely true but can be found, nonsensically, to be contrary to each other.”

The Georgia-Pacific logo (Pic via 2.bp.blogspot.com)

Sonnenberg herself admits that there is much uncertainty about the analytical methods used to study dioxins. “They are expensive, they take a lot of time and they’re hard to get right, especially at very high levels,” she says.

The dioxin that had been found in previous studies hadn’t reached alarming levels, according to Sonnenberg. But there was enough concern that, in the summer of 2008, the Department of Environmental Protection requested that the EPA sample Georgia-Pacific’s discharge for dioxin using High Volume Sampling to learn more about the waste stream when results for approved tests showed no evidence of dioxin.

Even so, dioxin isn’t necessarily Sonnenberg’s main concern. She believes more evaluation needs to be conducted on the sediment contaminations in Rice Creek.

“Rice Creek comes up over and over as one of the most contaminated sites in the river,” she says, adding that “PCBs, mercury, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and chloryphenols” are all chemicals of concern.

“While there would not be discharges of the sediment itself through the pipeline, there may continue to be constituents in the wastewater that will affect the sediment quality in the St. Johns,” says Sonnenberg.

Though Rice Creek sediment is highly contaminated, the source of some of the most important classes of contaminants remains unknown.

“We now understand that the legacy solids in the ponds have tested positive for dioxin,” says Miller. “Therefore, the department is  focusing on eliminating, or reducing to the maximum extent possible, the potential for the legacy solids contributions to the final effluent.”

A new diatom species was discovered in the St. Johns just last year by an FSU biologist studying a 7-year-old sample collected in Putnam County. According to an article about the discovery, published at Science Daily, the tiny plants known as diatoms “reflect declining water quality” in the area in which they are present. Though it is unclear whether this species has anything to do with Georgia-Pacific’s effluent, the fact that the discovery further proves the poor water quality in the area only adds ammunition to those opposing any additional pollution in the St. Johns River.

Despite concerns, construction on the pipeline is moving ahead. What that will mean for the St. Johns River remains unknown.

Environmentalists, like the Riverkeeper, would prefer that Georgia-Pacific correct the problem within its Palatka plant rather than simply move the pollution from one point to another. But Georgia-Pacific representatives maintain that they have done all they can, and that the pipeline is the only solution.

The mill is currently the largest private employer in Putnam County, with just over 1,000 employees. Over the last 10 years, Georgia-Pacific has spent a total of $250 million to upgrade the Palatka mill. The pipeline is expected to cost more than $30 million, but the ultimate cost to the environment remains unknown.

Georgia-Pacific is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, the controversial company owned by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Both men are politically connected, and well-known as being adamantly opposed to environmental and business regulations. Georgia-Pacific’s Palatka plant produces paper products sold under the brand names of Angel Soft, Quilted Northern, Brawny and Sparkle. Annually, the mill produces more than 500,000 tons of Kraft paper and tissue paper.

A recent ad released by Georgia-Pacific proclaims, “Can you protect jobs and the environment at the same time? Our answer is, Yes.”

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