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Environmental group decries report on Georgia-Pacific wastewater pipeline

The controversial pipeline that would reroute a Georgia-Pacific paper mill’s waste into the larger St. Johns River has long confounded environmentalists in the area. Now, a noted engineer says the pipeline wouldn’t just harm the river, but it may even potentially hurt Georgia-Pacific’s bottom line.

Moving pollution from one point to another seems an odd solution to correcting the environmental damage that has been wrought in Rice Creek, and yet that is essentially what the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has proposed in Palatka, Fla., the home of a Georgia-Pacific paper mill.

As one of the world’s largest manufacturers of paper products, Georgia-Pacific is no stranger to environmental controversy. Owned by the vigorously anti-regulation Koch Industries, the company often comes under fire for allegations of environmental violations.

In 1994, Georgia-Pacific sought a permit from the Department of Environmental Protection that would allow the company to relocate its existing wastewater discharge. In May 2001, the department issued the mill both a permit and an administrative order authorizing the “construction and operation of a pipeline to discharge the Mill wastewater into the St. Johns River only if Georgia-Pacific demonstrates that it cannot meet Class II water quality standards in Rice Creek.”

The Palatka paper mill has been discharging its wastewater into the creek since 1947. The proposed pipeline, which would measure almost four miles long and cost over $30 million, would divert much of the plant’s wastewater directly into the heart of the St. Johns River.

The St. Johns Riverkeeper’s Neil Armingeon argues the pipeline would be an enormous setback to ongoing efforts to reduce pollution in a river already inundated with fish kills and large-scale algal blooms. The Riverkeeper launched a campaign directed at Georgia-Pacific in January, and unveiled its plan to review a Brown and Caldwell report that concluded the company had no viable alternative to the pipeline.

Robert Hayes, the chief engineer contracted by the Riverkeeper to study the Brown and Caldwell report, says the company’s analysis was deficient.

“This problem requires a comprehensive study, not like the Brown and Caldwell thing,” Hayes says. “I remain unreprent about that. It is the worst report I have read in 50 years.”

Hayes says the Brown and Caldwell report failed to look at the source of the problem, which he calls “the nasty,” and instead looked at the potential to remove pollution from the water after it is already mixed in.

“The effluent comes from many places within the mill, before it reaches Rice Creek. So you go up into the plant and find where you’re flushing the nasty, and solve the nasty problem from the root, from upstream,” he says. “It’s like a surgeon looking at cancer. You analyze and solve the problem at the point where you have the cancer.”

According to Hayes, solving Georgia-Pacific’s effluent problem is doable. He says plants in Canada must meet must harsher specifications, because of heavily protected salmon fisheries, and are still able to meet the qualifications.

After discussing cost estimates with seven experts in the field of pulp, paper and engineering, Hayes says the general consensus is that Georgia-Pacific could meet water quality standards for under $35 million. Not only would this estimate cover capital costs, but Hayes says it would lead to improvements within the plant itself.

“We looked at the return on investment, and we estimated anywhere from four to six years. This problem can be solved. It is to G-P’s interest to solve it,” says Hayes. “I’m sure they have a risk manager somewhere that would look at this and say, ‘We could get the plant shut down if they start sending that effluent into the St. Johns.’”

“Georgia-Pacific, FDEP and other third-party experts have conducted numerous comprehensive evaluations of in-plant and wastewater treatment alternatives as recently as this year,” says Jeremy Alexander, spokesperson for the Palatka mill. “We are committed to continuous environmental improvement efforts, but that does not relieve of us our obligation to comply with state and federal water quality standards before the end of next year. Georgia-Pacific continues to move forward with pipeline construction which will enable us to fully comply with state and federal water quality standards prior to October of 2012.”

Should Georgia-Pacific go ahead with the pipeline, environmentalists will be up in arms. Pollution in Rice Creek is one thing. Put it directly into the St. Johns River, and Georgia-Pacific could likely face more than harsh criticism.

“It is incomprehensible that G-P wouldn’t realize that they would be subject to lawsuits by very active, rabid environmental groups … if they dont clean up the effluent before it reaches SJR,” says Hayes. “With technology, all things are possible. If you can’t find a way to do something, you aren’t a good enough technician.”

In releasing its “Cleaner GP” campaign, the St. Johns Riverkeeper encouraged its supporters to send petitions to Gov. Rick Scott, in an effort to inspire him to take a stance regarding the pipeline. “We continue to send petitions but I don’t know that we’ll hear anything,” says Armingeon. “At least 1,300 Florida residents have already sent in a petition, yet not one person from the governor’s office has given any acknowledgment that they’re familiar with the issue. You usually get some kind of letter back by now.” Amingeon says his goal now is “to get this letter to Herschel Vinyard,” Scott’s newly appointed Environmental Protection head.

Georgia-Pacific has done its own share of campaigning, on behalf of the pipeline. Its “Cleaner St. Johns” website touts the “variety of flora and fauna” in Rice Creek.

Armingeon’s gripe is not solely with Georgia-Pacific, but with the state environmental protection department that is allowing the pipeline, and the pollution, to continue disturbing state waterways.

“It’s completely naive to think that the DEP will go out in a three-mile mixing zone and wait to catch G-P polluting,” he says. “It’s just not going to happen. The bottom line is: It’s 2011 and the solution is to move pollution from one point to another. That’s the best that the DEP can do?”

Armingeon says the Riverkeeper is still attempting to elicit help from outside sources, and trying to work with lawmakers for political support, but, thus far, no one has bitten.

“We’ve done everything and we’ve been rejected and rebuffed,” he says. “Now, all bets are off. We’ll do everything we have to do to stop the pipeline. We’re not giving up. If this campaign doesn’t work, we’re going to enter another phase.”

Read a letter penned by Hayes to Armingeon, concerning his analysis of the Brown and Caldwell report here (.doc).

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