The Altamaha Riverkeeper last week 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 in Jesup.
“They have just spent several hundred million dollars to update their mill, but they continue to discharge dark, chemical-laden water into the Altamaha,” ARK Executive Director Deborah Sheppard said. “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 violation of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System 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 represents 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.
“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 & Associates, also representing ARK.
According to the company’s financial data, Rayonier, which is headquartered in Jacksonville, 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.
During 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 generates 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.