Pensacola, Florida
Thursday October 17th 2019

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Can IP Lower Environmental Bar?

By Jeremy Morrison

The paper mill, under one banner or another, has been a part of northern Escambia forever. Starting in 1941 with the Florida Pulp and Paper Company and following through to its current incarnation, run by International Paper, the operation has been there so long it almost feels like part of the natural landscape.

What does actually become part of the landscape is the paper mill’s daily wastewater outflow, which runs north of 20 million gallons. The effluent empties into wetlands before it drains into lower Elevenmile Creek and Perdido Bay.

“It’d be like taking the effluent of the population of 350,000 people and discharging it into a water body that doesn’t have an exchange,” said Barbara Albrecht, who heads both the Bream Fishermen Association and the Panhandle Watershed Alliance.

Some environmentalist, like biologist Dr. Jackie Lane, have long sounded the alarm over the environmental impacts of the paper company, arguing that the ecological price isn’t worth whatever economic gains might be due to the mill. She founded Friends of Perdido Bay in 1986 to raise awareness of the issue.

“They’re a massive polluter,” Lane said. “Do we really want them here?”

While some folks would no doubt like to see International Paper gone from the area and consider any mill-associated impact to be too great, the company is pretty much meeting state and federal environmental standards. Almost, but not quite. And that could be a problem.

Specifically, IP consistently sees “chronic toxicity failures” in quarterly effluent tests submitted to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. If the company can’t correct the issue, it’s in danger of losing its operating permit next spring—unless, of course, it can get the state of Florida to lower environmental standards and the federal government to sign off on it.

The Chronic Toxicity Blues
IP’s permit quandary goes back some years. Lane is fond of saying that the company doesn’t even have a current permit, that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists it as expired. But FDEP is quick with a clarification.

“They’re operating under the 2010 permit,” said Brandy Smith, external affairs manager for FDEP’s northwest district. “So, it’s not an expired permit. It’s still valid. It’s still enforceable.”

The 2010 permit required IP to relocate its effluent discharge from Elevenmile Creek to a nearly 1,400-acre company-owned wetland. This has helped reduce the impact to the creek and filters the effluent through the wetlands before it reaches Perdido Bay.

“It used to empty out into the headwaters of Elevenmile Creek,” said Chips Kirschenfeld, director of Escambia County’s Natural Resources Management Department, describing how the change helped clean up the creek. “Now, there’s no discharge in the creek. So, our monitoring in Elevenmile Creek shows a water body that’s in pretty good shape.”

In the new wetlands discharge area, however, it’s a different story. There, IP has been under a Whole Effluent Toxicity correction plan since 2012 due to chronic toxicity failures. As part of the corrective plan, IP must submit quarterly reports detailing effluent test results. In order to obtain a new permit, the company must pass four consecutive quarters of testing.

“To date, IP’s efforts to address chronic toxicity have not been successful,” Smith said.

Kirschenfeld laid this out for Escambia County commissioners in an email this past June—“IP’s discharge into wetlands does not meet the ‘end of pipe’ standards for wetland discharge. The parameters of exceedance include pH, specific conductance (sodium) and dissolved oxygen. Monitoring data also indicates there may be issues with turbidity and wetland insect toxicity testing results.”

Toxicity tests measure the aggregate effect of IP’s effluent to aquatic organisms, in this case Ceriodaphnia dubia, otherwise known as the water flea. Acute toxicity tests measure this impact in the short term, whereas chronic toxicity tests measure longer-term (greater than seven days) impacts.

While IP regularly passes the acute toxicity tests, the company fails the chronic tests. These failures are due to the impacts the effluent has on the water fleas’ reproductive levels.

Since 2012, FDEP has worked with IP to correct this effluent issue, giving the company time to meet environmental standards. The latest extension—giving IP until April 2020 to address the matter—was granted this past January.

Some people would say the state is giving IP too much time and contend that the company’s wetlands discharge efforts didn’t improve things as much as touted.

“That’s why DEP has been dragging their feet,” Lane said. “The things that were supposed to fix it didn’t fix anything.”

Varying Views of a Bay
How’s the health of Perdido Bay? It depends on who you talk to.

“It keeps getting worse and worse over here really. It’s amazing,” said Lane, recounting how swimmers in the bay “come out smelling like a rotten egg.” “It’s really terrible. It’s horrible, really.”

Lane attributes the decline she notes in Perdido Bay to IP, to its output into both the water and air. She points to not only antidotal rotten-egg smelling swimmers but also things like the water flea.

“It’s a shame really,” she said. “This bay would be beautiful if it wasn’t for the mill.”

Then there are others, like Kirschenfeld, who take a different view. His family has been in the area for generations, can recall the paper-mill-associated fish kills of decades past, and he feels that the bay is in much better shape than it once was.

“I was down here a few weeks ago in my boat. I went fishing; I went swimming; kids went tubing,” the Escambia County scientist said. “To me, there is not a water quality issue in Perdido Bay.”

In fact, Kirschenfeld takes issue with those that paint the issue in a dire light. He points to Lane as a crusader who has “always had an ax to grind” and questions reports of environmental degradation, such as fish kills—“I haven’t seen ‘em.”

“You’ve got a few people saying statements like that that aren’t true, and things are just spiraling and people just think it’s horrible over there,” he said. “I’m a scientist. I look at data. I draw my conclusions from data, and I don’t have any issues.”

Albrecht disagrees. She believes that IP has taken a toll on Perdido Bay—“one industry, and the bay is dead”—and calls Lane “a warrior.”

“Jackie Lane has been speaking the truth, and she’s been thrown under the bus,” Albrecht said.

Lane, meanwhile, continues to wonder how long IP will be allowed to operate without obtaining a renewed permit.

“It’s interesting for me to see how long they can let this go,” she said.

IP Eyes Alternative Criteria
After more than 30 years of fighting for the health of Perdido Bay, of fighting against the environmental impacts of the paper company, could victory finally be spied on the horizon? Will IP be forced to shut down its legacy operations, thus turning off the spigot on the 20-plus million gallons per day of effluent, not to mention the air emissions?

This is a daydream Lane can indulge—“How can they issue a permit for them? You can’t kill a bay and get a permit, can you?”

But she’s been fighting this fight long enough to develop a coat of cynicism.

“Nobody’s going to shut ‘em down. Or, DEP isn’t,” Lane said. “It’s pretty sickening to see, your state agency isn’t protecting the environment at all.”

Indeed, FDEP is currently waiting for IP to submit a petition to establish site-specific alternative criteria, or SSAC, for the wetlands discharge area. In other words, the company will request the state bend the existing environmental standards. Such criteria would be, according to the agency, “designed to more accurately reflect site-specific conditions.”

“They kind of have a unique situation,” Smith said of IP’s discharge area. “That property was used for growing timber in the past, so it was not a pristine wetland.”

IP has yet to submit an application for alternative criteria, though FDEP is expecting it soon. When it does, the public will have a chance to submit input prior to any decision.

Kirschenfeld isn’t convinced that IP will be able to secure alternative criteria.

“I honestly don’t think they’re going to succeed,” he said, explaining how it’s a heavy lift to justify such measures and then to get both the state and the feds to sign off on the alternative criteria. “It’s basically telling EPA and DEP that these minimum standards don’t apply to us—‘We’re special.’”

Kirschenfeld also doesn’t think IP should be granted the SSAC. The areas of exceedances triggering the company’s failures, he said, can be technologically managed—“There are ways to improve these.”

Albrecht isn’t so sure. She tends to share Lane’s cynicism when asked if FDEP is likely to grant IP a new permit come spring despite its failure to meet environmental standards.

“Let me answer this question,” she laughed, “with a redundant question—Did FDEP just give ECUA another permit for the Pensacola Beach wastewater treatment plant?”