Altamaha Riverkeeper News

Round One Goes to Rayonier

ARK - rayonier google earthFor decades, Rayonier’s plant in Jesup, GA has discharged its industrial waste into the Altamaha, produc ing a long plume of dark stain that is so vivid that it appears clearly visible in photos taken by orbiting satellites.  Up close, Rayonier’s effluent not only insults the river water’s clarity and beauty, it also assaults one’s nose, and any fish caught for dinner, with a stench that is nauseating.

In work begun by former Riverkeeper James Holland and former Executive Director Deborah Sheppard, and carried forward by Riverkeeper Jen Hilburn, ARK documented these facts and brought suit in Federal District Court alleging that Rayonier’s discharges constituted violations of the Federal Clean Water Act.

Unfortunately, Judge Lisa Godbey Wood ruled on March 31 that, based on contract law principles, Ray- onier’s discharge permit does not incorporate the state’s narrative water quality standards that were the grounds of our legal complaint.

Judge Wood wrote: “The Court does not intend this holding to suggest that Rayonier’s discharges do not have a harmful effect on the Altamaha River, or that the Riverkeeper’s alleged injuries are trivial. To the contrary, those effects may be deleterious, and Rayonier’s discharges may, in fact, violate Georgia’s narra- tive water quality standards. The Court’s holding is simply that the Riverkeeper must show a violation of Rayonier’s NPDES Permit to bring its CWA citizen suit, and here it failed to show that compliance with the relevant water quality standards is a condition of Rayonier’s NPDES Permit.”

In other words, Georgia EPD – which is charged with enforcing both the federal Clean Water Act and Georgia’s narrative water quality standards  — must insist on compliance with the clean water act  in the permit it issues to Rayonier before the court will enforce the standards.

The intricacies of the legal issue are all but incomprehensible to the layman, but the result is that we will be pursuing other avenues to put a stop to Rayonier’s ongoing pollution. ARK is currently exploring an appeal of Judge Wood’s ruling with our lawyers – Greenlaw, SELC, and Stack & Associates. It is clear to us that we cannot assume that Georgia EPD will do more than it has done in the past and that, essentially, is to allow Rayonier to pollute the Altamaha almost at will. EPD’s current draft of a new NPDES permit requires only that Rayonier conduct a study of the color and odor aspects of its discharge. Riverkeeper Jen Hilburn says “In our view, study is another word for stalling – allowing Rayonier to continue to put stain and stink into the waters of the Altamaha that belong to all Georgians.”

We are currently working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who has their own con- cerns regarding the proposed EPD permit. As the EPA is the final authority, we hope that we can encour- age them to take federal action with the EPD if a new, suitable permit is not forthcoming.

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!