Altamaha Riverkeeper to Sue Rayonier, Claims Violations of Clean - Local news, weather, sports Savannah | WSAV On Your Side

UPDATE: EPD says Rayonier is Meeting its Requirements, Won't Comment on Lawsuit

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UPDATE:  The Environmental Protection Division (EPD) in Atlanta tells us today that it is "satisfied with the progress made by Rayonier as part of a consent order issued in 2008 and is in compliance."  Bruce Foisy, the manager of EPD's Coastal District Office, tells News 3 that the company and the state entered into the agreement because there was a potential standard violation in the river.  He said both parties agreed upon a plan to reduce the color from the discharge.  Foisy says the odor from the discharge is not addressed in the consent order.  The EPD says the consent order indicated that Rayonier would spent up to $75 million dollars for equipment and processes changes that would reduce the brown color of the discharge.  The EPD says testing indicates the company is not only complying with the consent order but "well below" what it asks in terms of color reduction.  The consent order indicates a timeline of 96 months.  The EPD says the consent order called for the color to be reduced by at least half.  But the EPD says recent testing in October indicated the color content was below that.  Foisy says Rayonier is in the process of applying for a new permit.  He says if a new permit is issued, it would likely contain the same or even more restrictions as the consent order.  Finally, he said word that Altamaha Riverkeeper may be filing suit "should have no bearing on the consent order or the permit process."

Hutton Brown, an attorney representing the Altamaha Riverkeeper told News 3 the organization has been "talking to the state and the company for a decade but things aren't getting any better."  Hutton points out the EPD never even tried to address the odor of the discharge over the past few years and says the requirements in the consent order don't go far enough.  "The role that organizations like Riverkeeper play ideally wouldn't be needed if the State would require the company to do what is necessary to protect the environment."Hutton said whatever Rayonier is doing, the discharge is as bad as ever.  'Just go out to the river or fly over it, you'll see the colored plume," he said.  Brown says the Riverkeeper consistently gets reports from people who have caught fish and cut them open only to smell the rancid odor of the discharge inside the fish.  "We want no color and no odor and it's not an unrealistic demand," Brown said.  He said paper mill facilities in other countries have figured out how to do what Rayonier is not doing.  "We know the company is a major employer in the Jesup area," Hutton told us. "we are not trying to do anything to affect jobs.  But the company is using a public resource, not a private resource.  You and I can't go out and start dumping 55 gallon drums of chemicals into the river."

Hutton says while the company has 60 days to respond to concerns, he does anticipate that Rayonier will do more than it's been required to do thus far.

Story Filed Tuesday, 26

The Altamaha Riverkeeper says it gave notice today to Rayonier of its plans to sue the company for violations of the Federal Clean Water Act and the Georgia Water Quality Control Act. The Riverkeeper says the violations relate to ongoing effluent discharges into the Altamaha River from the Rayonier Performance Fibers plant in Jesup.

Above: video from a previous archive story examines concerns with the river.

"They have just spent several hundred million dollars to update their mill, but they continue to discharge dark, chemical-laden water into the Altamaha," says Deborah Sheppard, executive director of Altamaha Riverkeeper. "While most paper companies cleaned up their effluent discharges and modernized their water treatment processes, Rayonier continues to use 1970s technology in its effluent treatment. Water sampling and plenty of visual evidence show it isn't working." The Rivkerkeeper says the colored discharge can even been seen on Google Earth.

The Riverkeeper says Rayonier has been discharging polluted water into the Altamaha for decades and alleges it is violating its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. Sheppard says that is specifically a water quality standard issue in terms of color and odor. The Riverkeeper says the Clean Water Act requires that a plaintiff must give notice of intent to sue and provide the company 60 days to address the allegations before a complaint can be filed.

The Riverkeeper says the Clean Water Act requires that a plaintiff must give notice of intent to sue and provide the company 60 days to address the allegations before a complaint can be filed.

"Rayonier needs to comply with the law and stop treating Georgia's largest river as its private sewer," said Hutton Brown, a senior attorney with GreenLaw, which is representing Alamaha Riverkeeper. "We believe the court will agree."

According to Sheppard, the discharge from Rayonier's two outfall locations into the Altamaha contains discolored and malodorous water that can be seen and smelled by river users for miles downstream, which has substantially impacted fishing in the river. The dark plume of stained water is even visible from a great altitude on Google Earth.

"ARK has worked diligently and waited patiently over the years for the promised improvements to become apparent, but the river today looks like it always has," said Don Stack of Stack & Associates, also representing ARK.

Last week, the Altamaha River was listed on Georgia's "Dirty Dozen List" for the third year in a row, i.e. called one of the state's most polluted rivers.

Rayonier is headquartered in Jacksonville Florida and the Riverkeeepr says it has increased shareholder's profits considerably since 2004.  But the Riverkeeper says that Rayonier still relies on 40-year-old effluent treatment technology while declining to invest in proven solutions now commonplace around the world.

However,  Russell Schweiss from Rayonier told us this last week. "We've invested more than $70 million dollars in new technologies and have reduced the color of the water by more than 50 percent," he said

Schweiss said the company is ahead of benchmarks set by the state of Georgia in a consent order issued in 2008. He said improvements made to processes and the wastewater treatment function were resulting in the reduction of color. "We've achieved much greater control of the waste stream itself to ensure every bit of color we can recover is recovered before that water moves through our wastewater treatment systems."

Schweiss also told us "The bottom line is we've invested significant amounts of money and have had tremendous success at reducing the amount of color in our discharge. It's still an ongoing effort and one that will continue."

The Rivkerkeeper does acknowledge that in recent years the company has invested approximately $300 million to convert the Jesup plant to specialty fibers considered more profitable than diaper grade pulps made previously. But the Rivkerkeeper says manufacturing the specialized pulp inherently generates substantially more polluted wastewater than the previous products did and Rayonier has acknowledged as much.

According to the Riverkeeper, Neil McCubbin, a leading pulp industry expert and engineer, says Rayonier has indeed installed some water pollution control measures which have reduced discharges of many pollutants by roughly half. In recent years, the company has invested approximately $300 million to convert the Jesup plant to specialty fibers considered more profitable than diaper grade pulps made previously. Unfortunately, as Rayonier has acknowledged, manufacturing the specialized pulp inherently generates substantially more polluted wastewater than the previous products did.

According to the Riverkeeper, Neil McCubbin, leading pulp industry expert and engineer, says Rayonier has installed some water pollution control measures which have reduced discharges of many pollutants by roughly half.

However, the measures installed within the production system, McCubbin said, are "far less effective than what he has seen at the best operated pulp mills, and they fail to reduce discharges to acceptable levels."

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