On verge of water-quality test, Georgia-Pacific refutes environmental groups’ pollution claims
Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2010/08/MahurinEnviro_Thumb5.jpgPaper manufacturer Georgia-Pacific is pushing back against claims made by protectors of the Ouachita River along the Arkansas-Louisiana state line that have cried foul over what they contend are unlawful amounts of wastewater coming from the company’s plant into a tributary of the river. The back-and-forth comes on the verge of upcoming tests the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) will conduct to determine whether the tributary, Coffee Creek, should retain its currently low standards of cleanliness that allow for more pollution than allowed to streams with more vibrant ecosystems.
Earlier this week, The American Independent reported that environmental watchdog groups are battling Georgia-Pacific, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, over the outflow of wastewater from the company’s Crossett, Ark., plant. The plant is situated just north of the Louisiana state line on Coffee Creek. ADEQ and Georgia-Pacific say that all water quality standards are being met; the Ouachita Riverkeeper and a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) aren’t convinced.
James Malone, a spokesman for Georgia-Pacific, tells The American Independent that the original video — in which Ouachita Riverkeeper Cheryl Slavant claims “black liquor” is leaking into the river from the plant — is misleading. As The American Independent previously reported, the location featured in the video is not, according to Malone, on public property. It is, in fact, part of the Georgia-Pacific plant’s water treatment facility, and the foam and other materials that appear on the surface of the water are removed before outflow from Georgia-Pacific enters Arkansas or Louisiana waters. A special ADEQ inspection in November prompted by pictures of the site that appears in the video confirmed Georgia-Pacific’s claim that it is indeed upstream of where wastewater from Georgia-Pacific enters Coffee Creek.
Malone’s biggest problem with the video is Slavant’s statement that Georgia-Pacific is dumping what’s known as black liquor into Coffee Creek. Black liquor, a noxious, viscous stew of highly acidic chemicals, is a byproduct of turning tons of raw wood chips into clean, white paper. Malone says that holding on to the black liquor is not just an environmental concern, but a fundamental part of providing energy to the company’s paper mills.
Dr. Martin Hubbe, a professor in North Carolina State University’s Department of Forest Biomaterials, confirms that reusing black liquor is standard practice in the paper industry. “The industry has over 100 years of practice” processing black liquor, he says. “This is one of the early success stories of the industry meeting its environmental obligations.”
Black liquor gets its start, logically enough, as white liquor, a slurry of chemicals designed to strip wood of its fibrous properties in order to turn it into pulp. According to Hubbe, as the white liquor does its work, it leaches color from the wood, eventually becoming the pungent, acidic pitch known as black liquor. The black liquor becomes green liquor with the addition of alkaline chemicals and heat, and eventually, the addition of lime creates white liquor all over again. It’s a “never-ending loop,” Hubbe reports, and one that has the added benefit of generating a lot of steam throughout the many recursive processes: enough, says Malone, to generate more than 50 percent of the energy used at any given Georgia-Pacific plant. “In principal, it’s a very sustainable system,” says Hubbe, “if it’s operating properly.”
That last point is where Slavant believes Georgia-Pacific has failed. Malone strenuously denies that any black liquor could have left the Crossett plant. But Slavant says she has pictures to prove it. At right is one such picture, taken on the Ouachita River near where Coffee Creek empties Georgia-Pacific wastewater into the larger waterway.
Slavant says that the picture shows black liquor pooling in slow-moving parts of the Ouachita River. The ADEQ disagrees. Cecillea Pond-Mayo, spokesperson for the ADEQ, says, “We were out there on site [Tuesday]. Coffee Creek is dark, and the color is the effect of the tannins and the lignans in the wood.”
Tannins and lignans are chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants. Tannins are the bitter chemicals that give red grape skins their color, while lignans make up the rigid material that gives wood its brown color; they’re both powerful dying agents. Both can remain in even the cleanest paper plant’s wastewater, and they naturally leach into the water in wetland areas. Pond-Mayo concedes that these natural dyes have darkened Coffee Creek, but she says the color dissipates on contact with the Ouachita River.
Slavant also reports an overwhelming, acrid stench along Coffee Creek. But all in all, without any kind of chemical analysis, it’s impossible to know just what the dark sediment flowing into the Ouachita River is.
The quagmire over the competing explanations may be settled once and for all very soon. In coming weeks, the ADEQ will be taking chemical samples of the Ouachita River and Coffee Creek itself in order to settle whether Coffee Creek should retain a “no aquatic life” designation. Coffee Creek is not subject to the same cleanliness standards as the larger Ouachita River because it has been deemed incapable of supporting aquatic life by the state of Arkansas. If Slavant is correct and Georgia-Pacific is dumping more than just natural dyes and trace chemicals, the Ouachita River could be the site of the next big showdown between Koch Industries and the EPA.