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Perry, a town on edge over vanishing jobs

Published Oct. 11, 2005

Alone at the fish camp, deep in the woods of Taylor County, Stephanie McGuire heard the man hollering to her from a small boat on the Fenholloway River.

Did she know who owned the cows just down the dirt road? He might have shot one of them accidentally, the man shouted.

McGuire stepped outside the hot-wired fence that surrounds the wooden shanties and trailer that she and Linda Rowland call home. She closed the gate, locking in the pack of dogs _ including a Doberman and three Rottweilers _ that help scare off unwelcome strangers.

As she reached the water's edge, the dogs howled.

Someone struck her head from behind. She was jumped by two men dressed in camouflage, their faces concealed by hunting hoods. The boat driver joined them.

Pinning her down, they stomped on her right hand. One of them slashed her shirt open with a flat blade razor. "I'm gonna do this as slow as I can so it'll be as painful as possible," he told her.

He sliced from her right ear toward her mouth. Then he dipped his hand into the shallow river and poured water into the wound: "Now you'll have something to sue us about."

Another man used a cigar and burned the flesh above her left breast. The man with the knife sliced her other cheek and her left shoulder.

Another of them said he wanted to teach a lesson to "all you crazy people that are gonna cause us to lose our jobs."

Jobs.

Taylor County suffers the highest unemployment rate in the state: 13.7 percent. Things are so bad that in February, USA Today featured Perry, the county seat, as a microcosm of the national recession.

Now Taylor County's largest employer wants to leave town.

Procter & Gamble has operated a cellulose pulp mill there since 1954. The mill churns out tons of heavy paper for Pampers diapers and other products. Every day, P & G dumps tons of industrial pollution into the Fenholloway River.

McGuire and Rowland are part of an environmental group threatening a lawsuit against P & G to force it to clean up the river, which is polluting nearby wells. State officials are cracking down. And P & G says it's getting out.

In an area gripped with economic fear, it would seem, someone could get her throat slit.

Before dawn, the regulars start arriving at Pouncey's restaurant. They pile into double booths, drinking coffee, sopping up gravy with homemade biscuits, until it's time to head for work. Some work at the mill. Some don't.

Since P & G announced it was selling the mill last month, the regulars have been consumed by one topic: Buckeye. That's the original name of the pulp plant.

It employs 1,000 workers. Another 1,000 log the forests or work in related jobs.

"The biggest fear is that nobody is going to buy Buckeye because of the water problems," said Jetty Sadousky, a waitress at Pouncey's. Her husband works for a construction contractor that relies on P & G for much of its business. "Most people thoroughly believe that is the reason it's for sale. We would have to leave town if it closed."

P & G has been Taylor County's largest employer for almost 40 years. In 1947, local leaders persuaded the Legislature to designate the Fenholloway an industrial river. In exchange for turning the river into a toxic waste drain, the town has thrived during Florida's booms and managed to hold on during recessions, with secure jobs at Buckeye.

Richard Frith is mayor of Perry, population 8,200. A title insurance company owner, he sums up the town's sentiment in one word: "frightened."

"I think the residents of this community realize how desperately we need that plant to stay open," Frith said. "It affects almost everybody's life. If we were in a more stable economic climate right now, I would feel much less apprehension."

The past 18 months have not been kind to Taylor County.

Maryland Assemblies, a gunpowder plant that employed about 200, shut down after federal fraud indictments. Sportcraft, a boat manufacturer, laid off almost half its 150 workers when the recession slowed boat sales.

Then P & G stopped making capital improvements at the pulp plant, forcing Watkins Engineering, the area's second-largest employer, to lay off half its 400 workers. Tom's Snack Foods laid off 60 workers. Coca-Cola closed a small bottling plant, and dozens of small businesses have cut back or closed shop. Now the company running the county's small hospital has filed for bankruptcy protection and missed several weeks' payroll.

"If you eliminate Procter & Gamble, you're effectively left with a 25 percent unemployment rate, and that's terrible," said John Millican, former environmental manager for P & G, who works with a citizens group called Defenders of Taylor County.

"My concern is the county I grew up in is being torn apart by unnecessary outside influences."

In the past year, as news articles and Help Our Polluted Environment (HOPE), the environmental group dedicated to cleaning up the Fenholloway, have focused on the water pollution, Perry's prospects for attracting new business have become even worse.

Who wants to move to a town with one of the most polluted rivers in the state? Where people are afraid to drink water from their wells? Where, if the wind shifts, the smell of sulfur from the cellulose plant still nauseates the locals?

"All of a sudden, Perry is a horrible place to be," groused Mike Evans, Taylor County's economic development chief. "It's not. But the media focus on all the negativism is portraying us as a backward, polluting community."

Mayor Frith fears that P & G's decision to sell its plant is tied directly to the river controversy.

"I think that it was too much adverse publicity on Procter & Gamble," Frith said. "This plant makes up 40 percent of their cellulose and pulp holdings, which are supposed to be about 4 percent of their total holdings. If they start getting a lot of adverse publicity, they can afford to divest themselves of the plant."

Said Evans: "Procter & Gamble will tell you this is a business decision and it's part of its global expansion plans. Off the record, they will tell you the environmental discussions are very significantly affecting their decision, particularly at the Florida site."

P & G executives look you in the eye and deny it. They also deny, as some of Buckeye's critics have suggested, that the sale is a ploy to alleviate P & G's responsibilities to clean up the river.

"Procter & Gamble's strategy is to move its consumer products division into other parts of the world _ globalization," said John Sipple, P & G's site manager. "The environment had nothing to do with it. . . . It only seems like bad timing here."

He proudly rattles off a list of environmental awards the company has received for Buckeye's waste handling. P & G has spent more than $1-million extending city water lines nine miles, supplying bottled water and drilling more than 40 wells for residents who live near the river and complain of odors, bad tastes and skin rashes.

P & G is paying for a $1-million study with state officials to identify technology that can further clean up the Fenholloway.

"It's a too-big plant on a too-little river," Sipple said. State regulatory officials agree.

If Buckeye doesn't sell by the end of the year, Sipple said, P & G will continue operating it. He denies the plant has really been on the block for years. Goldman, Sachs & Co. in New York is trying to sell four pulp plants and two sawmills for P & G.

"The fear of the unknown has people scared," said Evi Touchton, a clerk in Perry's downtown pharmacy who is married to a mill worker. She has seen pharmacy business drop since Buckeye officially went on the block. "The first couple of days after the announcement, it was like a ghost town around here. Nobody was coming into the store."

Touchton and her husband had talked of starting a family and renovating their home. Both ideas are on hold.

"Your future is up in the air," Touchton said. "We don't know what's happening. We don't know what to believe anymore."

Jim Hunt feeds hundreds of Buckeye workers fresh vegetables and home-style cooking in his Hard Hat Cafe. As president of the Chamber of Commerce, he tries to reassure them that life with a new employer could be as good as it is with P & G.

"This plant has always been productive; it's always been profitable," Hunt said. "These people out here are proud of their work, and they do an excellent job."

Outsiders don't realize that several hundred of the plant's workers are well-educated managers, he said. Hunt can't understand how state officials can let P & G leave Florida.

Like other locals, he thinks inaccurate press coverage of the river pollution and mutant fish are as much to blame for Taylor County's image problems as the economy. "But," he adds, "we will survive."

So may the Fenholloway.

Every day, P & G discharges 50-million gallons of waste water into the Fenholloway, raising the river's level about 1.5 feet. During droughts, groundwater levels drop below the river's elevation, contaminating the aquifer with Buckeye's waste water. State environmental and health officials have traced contamination from Buckeye's waste in 60 wells within a mile and a half of the river.

Although P & G has spent nearly $100-million on waste-treatment equipment and $9.5-million a year on environmental monitoring, company officials acknowledge there is more work to be done. "There is a problem, and we need to continue to work toward a solution," Sipple said. "It's that last 5 percent that has to be taken care of."

Meanwhile, the Taylor County Sheriff's Department is investigating the fish-camp attack and links to the escalating controversy over the cellulose plant's pollution since P & G announced it was selling the mill. P & G is offering a $5,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the attackers.

The Fenholloway Fish Camp is on land leased to the fish camp's owners by P & G. A day-glow orange sign with a skull and crossbones warns boaters not to eat fish in the Fenholloway: The fish may be tainted with dioxin from the pulp plant's waste.

Since the attack three weeks ago, the women have received harassing phone calls and a threatening letter. They have heard someone approaching the fish camp late at night. Rowland, a former mill employee who is fighting P & G over disability benefits, fires shots of warning into the woods.

McGuire's 19 stitches are out, but an arm is still in a sling, and she wakes up screaming in the night. Rowland worries most about her friend's depression.

"Her outside scars will heal; it's her inside scars I'm worried about," Rowland said. "We have not been violent. We have said time and again we do not want the mill to shut down."

Like never before, people in Taylor County see the dangerous web they're stuck in. Too dependent on one employer.

"Yep, it's a company town," Mayor Frith said with a sigh.

He ponders what will happen to Perry if P & G gets tired of waiting for a buyer and closes the plant.

"I think the old saying applies," Frith said.

"Last one out of Taylor County close the gate."

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