Altamaha Riverkeeper News

How Ga. EPD Helps Rayonier AM Avoid the Clean Water Act

The Altamaha River is designated one of The Nature Conservancy’s “75 Last Great Places.” The Altamaha River is also listed as one of Georgia River Network’s “Georgia’s Dirty Dozen.” Since 1954, Rayonier Advanced Materials (RYAM) has violated the river with massive pulp and chemical waste discharge – 60 million gallons per day – enough to render fish inedible and other aquatic life depleted for 20 miles downstream.

RYAM is the world’s largest producer of cigarette filters.  Paddlers for decades have complained of being nauseated by chemical smells emitted from the water and in the air.  We have a federal Clean Water Act (CWA) but what we haven’t had is clean water.

In 2014, after 60 years of RYAM’s poor stewardship on “Georgia’s Little Amazon,” the Altamaha Riverkeeper (ARK) said “enough” and filed suit in federal court against RYAM for violations of CWA and State water quality standards.

ARK did not get very far, largely because Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) chose to exclude the narrative water quality standards, enumerated in CWA and State regulations, from the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit (NPDES) issued by EPD. The NPDES permit is currently up for renewal.

Chief Judge Lisa Wood, of the U.S. District Court in Brunswick, commented:

“If the Georgia EPD intended the conditions of Rayonier’s permit to be coextensive with the water quality standards set forth on the CWA, the State Act, and their rules and regulations, it could have done so by stating, “Rayonier is authorized to discharge wastewater into the Altamaha River in accordance with the conditions set forth in Parts I, II and III hereof and with the water quality standards enumerated in the Federal and State Acts and their attendant regulations.”  “

Judge Wood also determined that “…the Permit’s second reference to Georgia’s water quality standards is ambiguous.”  EPD inserted language that is “open to multiple interpretations,” according to Judge Wood.

Shedding light on other murky aspects of the NPDES permit, Judge Wood concluded, “Looking solely to the Permit itself, it is apparent that the Georgia EPD did not believe that the Permit, as written, would necessarily include conditions designed to achieve water quality standards established under the CWA and Georgia Regulations.  If it had, it would not have included a clause stating: “Nothing in this permit shall be construed to preclude the modification of any condition of this permit when it is determined that the effluent limitations specified herein fail to achieve the applicable State water quality standards.” “

Judge Wood has crystallized, therefore, the problems with – and potential solutions for – the NPDES permit currently under review by EPD, scheduled for renewal by 2016.

The ruling was good news for RYAM and the happy outcome couldn’t have been possible without the help of EPD as the delegated issuer of the NPDES permit.  However, US EPA may take a dim view of EPD’s reluctance in protecting Georgia’s water quality in the Altamaha River.

Noting EPD’s conflicting signals, Judge Wood observed, “Indeed, in a recent consent order, the Georgia EPD itself concluded that

“the esthetic impact of the [RYAM] Facility’s discharge has the reasonable potential to violate the Narrative Water Quality Standards because it has the reasonable potential to produce turbidity or other objectionable conditions that interfere with legitimate water quality uses of the Altamaha River and it has the reasonable potential to cause turbidity that results in a substantial visual contrast in the Altamaha River due to man-made activity.”

Judge Wood describes how the permit can be corrected: “True, the permit does not live up to the requirements of the CWA as written, but this fault of Georgia EPD’s does not render the permit as written illegal or unenforceable.  In fact, the Permit itself provides a way to rectify this shortcoming in its “Modification Clause,” which allows the Georgia EPD to modify the Permit’s conditions if they fail to achieve the applicable Georgia water quality standards.”

EPD has indicated that no changes are anticipated prior to re-issue.

In March 2015, EPD authorized only one public hearing in Jesup – in the home court of the RYAM mill.  The results were predictable for the same reason Georgia Bulldog pep rallies are held in Athens, and not on North Avenue in Atlanta.

Please show your support for clean water in the Altamaha River by sending an email to Jim Giattina,, EPA water quality director, and ask that EPA intervene and suspend renewal of NPDES 0003620 until the language of the permit is revised along the lines suggested in Judge Wood’s ruling and that water quality standards enumerated in CWA and State regulations  are included unambiguously as conditions of the permit.

Mark Yeager, ARK board member

Harris Neck, GA

See details of a 2013 analysis of water quality near the plant.

There are so many ways that you can help keep our rivers clean and beautiful. Responding to Action Alerts or reaching out to your elected representatives. Find your way to get involved!