Dark plume on water stretches miles, prompts legal action
The Altamaha Riverkeeper (ARK) today gave notice to Rayonier, Inc. of its intent to file suit against the company for violations of the Federal Clean Water Act and the Georgia Water Quality Control Act. The violations relate to ongoing effluent discharges into the Altamaha River from the Rayonier Performance Fibers plant located in Jesup, Georgia.
“They have just spent several hundred million dollars to update their mill, but they continue to discharge dark, chemical-laden water into the Altamaha,” said Deborah Sheppard, executive director of ARK. “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.”
Rayonier has been discharging polluted water into the Altamaha for decades, Sheppard said. ARK alleges this is in persistent violation of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, specifically Georgia’s narrative water quality standards for color, turbidity, and odor.
The Clean Water Act requires that a plaintiff must give notice of intent to sue and provides for 60 days in which 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 ARK.. “We believe the court will agree.”
Discharge from Rayonier’s two outfall locations into the Altamaha contains discolored and malodorous water that, Sheppard said, can be seen and smelled by river users for miles downstream. This has substantially impacted fishing in the river, according to the Georgia Water Coalition’s Dirty Dozen Report. 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 and smells like it always has,” said Don Stack of Stack and Associates, also representing ARK.
According to the company’s financial data, Rayonier, headquartered in Jacksonville Fla., has been a favorite on Wall Street, often outperforming the market as a whole. The forest products company has increased shareholder dividends multiple times since 2004.
Over the past three years, the company reports it invested more than $300 million to convert the Jesup plant to specialty fibers. Neil McCubbin, a leading pulp industry expert and engineer, said the specialized pulp is more profitable than the diaper grade pulps made previously. Unfortunately, he said, manufacturing the specialized pulp inherently generates substantially more polluted wastewater than the previous products did.
McCubbin said that Rayonier partially offset this increase by installing some water pollution control measures inside the production processes, which have reduced discharges of many pollutants by roughly 50 percent.
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.
The real problem, he said, is that Rayonier still relies on 40-year-old effluent treatment technology while declining to invest in proven solutions now commonplace around the world.
“The ASB (Aerated Stabilization Basin) treatment technology used by the Rayonier kraft pulp mill at Jesup was widely accepted in the 1970’s,” McCubbin said. “Today, about half the American kraft pulp mills, and virtually all kraft pulp mills overseas, use the more effective AST (Activated Sludge Treatment) process. A modern AST system at the Jesup plant would reduce pollutant discharge, including color, to less than half today’s values, and would have no risk of impacting mill products. It would also reduce the odorous discharges from the mill complex.”
More on Rayonier: In November, Rayonier was listed, for the third consecutive year, as one of Georgia’s “Dirty Dozen,” by the Georgia Water Coalition. This annual list draws attention to the worst offenders of Georgia’s water quality. “Fisheries, including the river’s once prosperous commercial shad fishery, have been severely damaged (by the Rayonier discharge),” the water coalition report stated. “White sandbars are stained brown.. Fishermen catch seemingly healthy fish only to find them reeking of nauseating pulp mill odors when they begin to clean them.”