The Altamaha Riverkeeper is calling on the state to withdraw a wastewater permit for Rayonier Advanced Materials based on a memo from federal regulators that describes the “objectionable” waste as not complying with Georgia’s own standards.
The March 16 memo, which the Riverkeeper received recently from EPA, says the water quality of the lower Altamaha is lacking because of the Jesup pulp mill.
“I find that the information suggests the lower Altamaha River, downstream of the Rayonier plant, is and has been impaired under the Ga. EPD water quality standards for color and odor,” wrote EPA senior technical adviser Franklin Baker.
The Altamaha Riverkeeper has been complaining about the stench and staining for years. It has sued to make the state enforce restrictions on odor and color in the pulp mill’s 50 to 60 million gallons a day of discharge. That litigation is now in the Georgia Court of Appeals, where it awaits docketing.
Undammed, the 137-mile Altamaha is the largest free-flowing river on the East Coast. The Nature Conservancy has identified it as one of “America’s Last Great Places.”
Rayonier AM employs about 750 people and produces more than half a million tons per year of cellulose products used in consumer goods, including a large portion of the material used to make cigarette filters worldwide. A company spokesman said the memo relies on studies that predate plant upgrades.
Representing the Altamaha Riverkeeper, attorney Hutton Brown of the Southern Environmental Law Center wrote to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division on July 31 pointing out the EPA findings.
“EPD repeatedly emphasized during the 2016 trial on this matter that the agency was ‘committed to undertaking a more thorough scientific analysis’ of color and odor in the lower Altamaha River and that it had the authority to reopen the permit if presented with additional information,” Brown wrote.
The memo provides that information and not from the Riverkeeper but from EPA and from the company itself, Brown argued.
“It would be hard to contemplate that the permit would have been issued in the face of this evidence in addition to all the other evidence in EPD’s file,” Brown wrote. “EPD, of course, retains not just the right and the power, but the obligation, to withdraw the permit to make sure it complies with the law, notwithstanding the current litigation.
EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said the division was first made aware of the internal EPA staff level memorandum when it received Brown’s letter.
“EPD does not plan to write a new permit at this time,” Chambers said. “The EPA memo is an internal staff level memo and is not an EPA agency action.”
The Rayonier permit was issued in December 2015, but it was quickly appealed. The Altamaha Riverkeeper won the first round when an administrative law judge ruled that EPD must issue a more stringent permit. But in March of this year Wayne County Superior Court Judge Stephen Kelley reversed that decision. The Altamaha Riverkeeper has appealed.
“The permit contains numerous requirements to protect water quality in the Altamaha River, including, for this facility, the first ever daily limits on color in the discharge,” Chambers said.
Altamaha Riverkeeper Jen Hilburn said the EPA memo underscores her organization’s contention that the permit doesn’t sufficiently protect the river or the people using it.
“That’s fantastic that they’re finally imposing color limits,” Hilburn said. “However, the limits are being met regularly and we still have staining of the river. The limits aren’t enough. They’re not adequate. And there are still no limits to odor. The EPA study shows that odor was one of the larger concerns. It’s getting into fish and keeping people from eating the fish.”
The EPA memo also revealed for the first time that Rayonier AM had studied the source of the odor in its discharge. The 2009 wastewater analysis identified sulfur compounds — mercaptans — as the odor source.
“Mercaptans have notoriously obnoxious odors detectable at extremely low levels and concentrations,” Baker wrote in the memo. “Ethyl mercaptan is used as a warning odorant for normally odorless commercial propane and natural gas.”
Rayonier AM spokesman Ryan Houck said the Riverkeeper’s request is based on outdated information.
“I think it’s important to note that this is not a statement from the EPA. It is an internal memo from an EPA staffer summarizing a variety of data — some of which dates to last decade,” he said. “In fact, the Riverkeeper’s letter is based on old data (from 2009) that predates $70 million worth of improvements made to our Jesup plant, which has resulted in a roughly 60 percent reduction in effluent color. This color primarily comes from the natural components of the wood we use to make our products.
“After considering current data, the Georgia Superior Court upheld the issuance of the new permit in a decision we believe to be well-reasoned. Given that the Altamaha Riverkeeper has indicated an intention to appeal that decision, we feel it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”
Along with the 2009 study, the memo also points to conversations with a U.S. Geological Survey employee at the South Atlantic Water Science Center, which monitors water quality throughout Georgia.
“(H)e can tell when USGS staff have returned from sampling the Altamaha River downstream of Rayonier because the boat and equipment smells like Rayonier wastewater upon its return to Norcross from south Georgia,” the memo states.
Altamaha Riverkeeper board member Mark Yeager said he was glad to see EPA’s memo.
“It’s never too late,” he said.