Tuesday morning’s First Coast Connect, a local news program on NPR’s Jacksonville affiliate, revolved around the St. Johns River – namely, the agencies that protect it and the industries that pollute it.
The program’s two guests, St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon and Georgia-Pacific Public Relations Coordinator Jeremy Alexander, certainly aren’t strangers to problems plaguing the river. Both men have been active in recent Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board meetings, as well as last week’s River Summit (G-P was a sponsor). But the two have different opinions when it comes to their stance on the implementation of more stringent standards governing Florida’s waterways.
Alexander has been vocal in the past about the great strides G-P has taken to reduce its impact on Rice Creek, the location of its Putnam County paper mill. On Tuesday morning’s program, he reiterated the fact that the company has spent more than $200 million and seen reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus levels.
But Armingeon, whose group has seen the river inundated with algal blooms, fish kills, and foam just this past summer, wasn’t entirely persuaded. Georgia-Pacific may have reduced nutrient levels in the creek, he said, but they are still the second-biggest discharger of wastewater and still emitting substantial amounts of nutrients.
The conversation also focused on the construction of a pipeline to re-route G-P’s effluent into St. Johns. Calling it the “800-lb gorilla in the room,” Armingeon said that the Riverkeeper’s belief is that the Putnam County mill could make additional improvements to meet water quality standards, allowing them to stay in Rice Creek and stay out of the river. Alexander made mention of the four weeks of “expert testimony” that went into an Administrative Law Judge’s Final Order (.pdf) allowing the pipeline to move forward and even touted “environmental benefits” for both the river and Rice Creek (he specified improvements for both submerged aquatic vegetation and grass beds).
Still, Armingeon remained unconvinced: “No one listening is gonna buy this,” he said, adding: “Let’s be honest, this administrative judge was not a scientist. He was a law judge and that’s a political process.”
Though the River Summit consisted of a full two days’ worth of panels on everything from harsher nutrient standards to better ways to receive federal funding, many felt that the list of sponsors was inconsistent with the overall theme. The title sponsor was the Jacksonville Electric Authority, the river’s no. 1 industrial point-source polluter. Georgia-Pacific (the no. 2 polluters) was also a sponsor. When asked about the sponsorship, Alexander was quick to point out that, when it comes to the river, any publicity is good publicity: “It’s a positive thing to have a conversation about the river … and everyone needs to be at the table … That dialogue is healthy.”
Armingeon said that it’s going to take “commitment and money” before the river can return to a healthy state. ”The real question is … do we, as a community, have the courage and conviction to do what it takes?”
Following his radio appearance, Armingeon said it is clear that people are taking an interest in the state of the river. “The phones lit up,” he said, a sign that “people are concerned about the Georgia-Pacific issue.”
Armingeon says the problem doesn’t lie solely with Georgia-Pacific, but with the agency approving the pipeline: “I don’t want to let DEP escape from all this … they’ve allowed this to happen. The areas upstream and downstream from the pipeline, extending from bank to bank, are massive mixing zones. Basically, all hell can break loose within these zones. My fear is … how can you even enforce something like that? This whole idea is just nutty.”
Both Armingeon and Alexander were scheduled to take part in a Tuesday evening panel hosted by the Putnam County Environmental Council that would also include chemist Brian Quinn and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Northeast director, Greg Strong.
Though the meeting has since been canceled, organizer Karen Ahlers, president of the Putnam County Environmental Council, says that her group will re-visit scheduling the meeting once G-P’s answers to the state’s Request for Additional Information have been made public. The request, dated August 20, lists a series of questions concerning the implementation of the pipeline – the timeline and costs, as well as unverified chronic toxicity results from a Rice Creek water quality report. According to Alexander, G-P is in the process of pulling together the data and formal responses to those questions.