The Fenholloway River, which runs 35 miles from its beginnings in Taylor County until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, is Florida's only "industrial" waterway. In a federal classification system that ranks rivers from 1, the cleanest, to 5, the dirtiest, the Fenholloway is Florida's only 5.
A mill owned by Procter & Gamble in Perry, about 50 miles southeast of Tallahassee, supplies the economic lifeblood of Taylor County.
The sprawling mill extracts cellulose from pine trees for things such as disposable diapers, coffee filters, and rayon clothing. It also dumps 50-million gallons of waste water into the Fenholloway each day.
Thirty-seven years after the mill opened, the Fenholloway is home to mutant fish and not much else. No one swims there.
"There's no bones about it. They have a license to kill," Mark Thompson, a scientist with the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission, told the Tallahassee Democrat in a story published Sunday. "That license is the state's Class 5 designation."
Government officials warn people not to eat Fenholloway fish because the fish contain dioxin, which could cause cancer.
"As far as water quality, I can't think of anything worse in Florida," Jim Harrison, a scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta, told the newspaper.
Officials with P&G, which has won praise from environmentalists through the years for conserving vast tracts of Florida wilderness, told the newspaper the huge amount of water that comes from the plant can't help having an impact.
Under its EPA permit, the plant has had no significant water-quality violations since 1988.
But because the plant is on Florida's only Class 5 river, P&G can legally pollute more than any other mill. And P&G has fought to keep that industrial classification.
Company officials say they have no choice. Other Florida mills sit on larger rivers, where the impact of pollution is diluted, they say. But their mill's waste makes up nearly the entire flow of the Fenholloway during much of the year.
There's no technology, they say, to make the plant's undiluted waste any cleaner than the state's "industrial" standard.
EPA scientists who took samples in 1989 found spots in the river where nothing was alive. People who live along the river have pollutants in their drinking-water wells so chemically complex that the state can't say what they are, much less say whether they are safe to drink.
"There are things in that well water and things in that river water that we haven't seen in Florida ground water anywhere," said Tom Atkeson, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.
Will Davis, an EPA scientist in Gulf Breeze, found female fish in the Fenholloway that are developing male characteristics. He calls them "bearded ladies."
The phenomenon, Davis said, has been reported in just three places: downstream from a pharmaceutical plant in Italy, downstream from Champion's paper mill near Pensacola and in the Fenholloway.
"The Fenholloway is the most drastic example we've seen in Florida of these types of hormonal effects," Davis said. "We think the microbial breakdown of the pine oils at the mill is the source of this."
P&G officials told the newspaper they can't comment because they haven't reviewed the study.