by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
While Georgia-Pacific moves forward with required upgrades to its wastewater system to meet water quality standards, it’s still unclear where the discharge from that system will be released.
Surveying has been completed and ground clearing has begun to construct a 4-mile pipeline to deliver the treated wastewater to the St. Johns River from the company’s Palatka paper mill.
It is currently discharging into Rice Creek, a tributary of the St. Johns near Palatka.
The project is being conducted to satisfy an administrative order issued in August 2002 that requires the Georgia-Pacific plant to meet Florida Department of Environmental Protection water quality standards.
The company contends it can no longer meet water quality standards in Rice Creek, but the Department of Environmental Protection has not been convinced that is the case.
“While GP has the authorizations needed for construction of the pipeline, under the terms of the existing permit and administrative order, use of the pipeline to relocate the discharge from Rice Creek to the St. Johns River is contingent on DEP’s determination that GP’s discharge cannot meet applicable water quality standards in Rice Creek,” said Jodi Conway, spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection.
“Questions remain as to whether GP has fully demonstrated that its discharge cannot meet applicable water quality standards in Rice Creek,” said Conway.
“Under the terms of the administrative order and the administratively continued wastewater permit, the relocation of GP’s discharge from Rice Creek to the St. Johns River is contingent on GP making this demonstration,” she said.
Georgia-Pacific, with the approval of the department, recently hired the firm of Brown and Caldwell to study wastewater treatment alternatives.
“The report did not identify any technologies that would provide reliable compliance with all applicable water quality parameters in Rice Creek. Additionally, the capital and operating costs associated with technologies evaluated would not allow the mill to remain viable as currently structured,” stated Gary Frost, Georgia-Pacific president of manufacturing, in a letter to the department.
The company claims to have spent about $200 million to upgrade its wastewater system since 1998, and said those upgrades have contributed to a 73 percent reduction in phosphorus discharges and a 54 percent reduction in nitrogen discharges using 1997-98 levels for a baseline.
“The investments we have made are more than $100,000,000 above and beyond what the state and federal governments require,” said Georgia-Pacific spokesperson Jeremy Alexander.
“We are proud of the system we have developed and the investment we have made in the Palatka mill for the health of the St. Johns River,” said Alexander, who said the mill employs about 1,000 people.
Georgia-Pacific created www.cleanerstjohns.com to provide information.
The St. Johns Riverkeeper isn’t convinced that the pipeline is the best option available to the company or for the St. Johns. It has developed its own website, www.cleanergp.com, to provide information about the project and an opportunity to sign a petition opposing the project that will be sent to Gov. Rick Scott.
“(The website) is not anti-GP or anti-mill. It’s pro-St. Johns River,” said Jimmy Orth, executive director of the St. Johns Riverkeeper.
“We just feel they can keep the pipeline in Rice Creek and meet the water quality standards. It’s not just about the jobs that the Palatka mill generates, it’s also about the jobs a healthy St. Johns River generates.”
The Riverkeeper funded a study of Georgia-Pacific’s report about its need for the pipeline and expects the study will be available to the public soon. It wants to discuss alternatives to the pipeline.
“Dialogue is always great,” said Alexander. “But we are under an administrative order to construct and operate the pipeline, which must be operational by October 2012.”
The two sides have sat down to discuss alternatives before, but the St. Johns Riverkeeper claims Georgia-Pacfic walked away from discussion.
“We are regulated by the Department of Environmental Protection and (St. Johns Riverkeeper and Clean Water Network) were not willing to have (DEP) engaged in those conversations,” said Alexander.
“Without DEP involved in the conversation, we wouldn’t have been able to move on anything that developed in those talks,” he said.
The Riverkeeper would like to see renewed talks once its study is released.
“GP has been proposing the pipeline since the mid-1990s. I think we’ve come a long way with technology since the mid-90s and other options are available,” said Orth.
“When we have algae blooms and we have a sick river, people need to realize there is an economic impact. We’ve got to get a handle on this and deal with the problem rather than moving pollution from one place to another,” he said.