Savannah keeps eye on water as Effingham turpentine plant looms

As state regulators work to finalize a discharge permit for a turpentine plant in Effingham County, a Savannah water official has indicated the city will keep an eye on how the plant affects its downstream drinking water sources.

 

The privately held French company DRT America is building the $43 million plant in the Effingham Industrial Park on the east side of Ga. 21 at Ebenezer Road. The plant, which is weeks away from completion, expects to employ 40. It will produce rosin and turpentine oil used in perfumes, adhesives, chewing gum and other products.

“Paving the roads around the site is a major step remaining to be done,” DRT America President Corey Schneider wrote in an email. “Full operation of the plant cannot begin until the pretreated water discharge permit is issued by the EPD. We will test equipment with water in place of turpentine prior to receiving the permit.

A hearing on its pretreatment, on-site wastewater treatment system was heavily attended in Springfield in May with commenters expressing concerns about DRT’s effects on Ebenezer Creek, a black water tributary of the Savannah River. The creek, designated a wild and scenic river, is beloved for its massive cypress trees and rich history.

After the meeting, the Environmental Protection Division extended the comment period on the permit but only by a few days. More than 55 written comments came in, with at least 19 during the extension from May 23-26.

While the draft permit that’s under review lists 45 organic chemicals to limit and monitor, the company expects only one of those chemicals, toluene, to be present in its waste stream. The company does expect to have to control also for hardness, ammonia, total organic carbon, phosphorous, specific conductivity and sulfates. Special conditions in the permit prohibit the wastewater from contaminating Springfield’s municipal sludge or passing through pollution that results in toxicity to aquatic life in Ebenezer Creek.

DRT’s waste would flow not directly to the creek but to Springfield’s municipal wastewater treatment facility for additional treatment. That municipal facility is itself awaiting an updated permit.

“DRT America’s permit cannot be issued until the city of Springfield receives its permit,” Schneider wrote in his email. “We hope to see the city’s permit issued before the end of July.”

Even if the pre-treatment permit is issued, the city has not yet agreed to accept the company’s waste nor is it legally compelled to accept it. Mayor Barton Alderman issued a statement in May indicating the city would not approve an agreement to accept DRT’s industrial wastewater until the pre-treatment permit is issued.

Audra Dickson, industrial permitting manager at EPD, said the agency is reviewing the comments on DRT’s permit. She declined to give a date for when the permit would be issued.

The two large drinking water suppliers downstream from Springfield’s wastewater treatment plant, Savannah and Beaufort-Jasper, both commented on the draft permit saying essentially the same thing. They emphasized that as providers of drinking water they needs a heads up should anything go awry.

“More than 160,000 people drink water treated by BJWSA from the Savannah River. Our water supplies are vulnerable to any pass through, interference, slug discharge, overflow, bypass, or noncompliance caused by DRT America at the city of Springfield’s plant,” wrote Tricia Kilgore, Beaufort-Jasper’s director of treatment operations. “As such, BJWSA requests that DRT America and/or the city of Springfield provide immediate notice to BJWSA and the city of Savannah of any incident or noncompliance, so that we may take measures to protect our shared water supply.”

Savannah doesn’t intend to rely solely on getting this notice. John Sawyer, chief of the public works and water resources bureau, said Savannah already monitors water sources upstream and may step up that effort.

Savannah is itself a issuing authority that is able to issue pretreatment permits to manufacturers that send their treated waste for final processing at one of the city’s municipal wastewater treatment plants.

Springfield, being smaller, does not have that issuing authority or the monitoring resources that come along with it. Instead it must rely on an already stressed EPD, which has faced repeated budget cuts.

“We can put the resources toward whatever is needed to put an eye on it,” Sawyer said. “EPD has the same budget crunches everybody else does.”

Savannah currently tests water quality at eight upstream locations twice a year, and has been doing this monitoring for 20 years. That gives the city important information for comparison.

“We’ve got quite a baseline,” Sawyer said. “If we start seeing things getting out of whack we can go up the tributaries and see what’s generating it.”

But twice a year may not be often enough.

“We may start doing it quarterly or monthly to make sure there are no issues,” Sawyer said. “I’m not saying there will be; we just want to make sure.”

For Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus, the burden of monitoring needs to be on DRT, the turpentine manaufacturer.

“It should be the responsibility of the discharger to real time monitoring on Ebenezer to all the users can look at it and determine the health of the stream,” she said.

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