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State's paper mills clean up; environmentalists want more

Published Oct. 5, 2005

In this company town where residents set their watches by the paper mill's shift whistle, many don't have time to talk about toxic pollution or environmental regulations.

They don't like discussing anything that could threaten the economic health of the "dot on the map" between Apalachicola and Panama City along Florida's northern Gulf Coast.

"If the paper mill goes, a hell of a lot of people would be out of business," says "Miss Mary" Fowler, knocking down a stiff drink at Port St. Joe's bar, where she is a regular at the only flicker of nightlife in the town. "Tell the government to get . . . out of here and let us live. How have people survived here if it's unsafe?"

Few Florida communities have quite the economic umbilical cord that connects Port St. Joe and its paper mill.

But many North Floridians have traditionally depended on the paper and pulp plants that form an economic spine across the top of the state. The industry employs more than 42,000 workers in Florida and has a payroll of $1.1-billion.

The cost of the industry's good jobs has long been the paper mills' release of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater into the region's winding, shady rivers, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

But state and federal regulators have worked with the mills in recent years to reduce the amount of toxic materials in their wastewater. Most of the mills have succeeded in removing detectable levels of dioxin, which has been linked to cancer in laboratory rats and is a byproduct of using chlorine to bleach paper.

The mills also are working with environmental regulators to restore the health of polluted waterways like the Fenholloway River in Taylor County and Eleven Mile Creek in Escambia County.

Of the seven pulp and paper mills listed among the state's top 25 polluters, six cut their toxic waste releases over a five-year period, according to an Associated Press computer analysis of federal Toxic Release Inventory records from 1989 to 1993.

But the scars of fierce battles between paper mills and the people living near them have been slow to heal in some communities.

Joy Towles Cummings, a resident-turned-activist, blames Buckeye Florida's cellulose mill in Perry for fouling residents' well water and polluting the Fenholloway so much it carries the dubious distinction of being the state's only industrial-class river.

"This is what we take a bath in, water our gardens with, bathe our babies in," Cummings says. "If it's not safe to drink, how can we use it?"

The mill's owners have been providing free drinking water to residents living along the river for four years, but say they are resolving problems with residents' well water and cleaning up the Fenholloway.

Buckeye Florida officials say they will stop providing drinking water to nearby residents by year's end when additional homes in a corridor along the river are hooked up to Perry's municipal water system.

Throughout the state, toxic chemical pollution, sewage effluent and fertilizer-tainted runoff from farms threaten Florida's pressured water supply.

The AP computer analysis showed that TRI-regulated industries alone dumped more than 2.1-million pounds of toxic wastes into surface water in 1993 in the 10 counties with the largest amount of this pollution.

The companies with the most direct toxic impact on surface water are Florida's pulp and paper mills, particularly plants that use chlorine to bleach the pulp and make white paper: Champion International in Escambia County; Stone Container Corp. in Bay County; St. Joe Paper Mill in Gulf County; Buckeye Florida in Taylor County; Georgia-Pacific in Putnam County; and ITT Rayonier in Nassau County.

The bleach mills have long had a reputation as heavy polluters of nearby streams, rivers and bays. But regulators say the bleach mills have made strides in cleaning up their wastewater, and none are reporting detectable levels of dioxin now.

In Escambia County, Champion International has worked _ under pressure from environmentalists _ to clean up Eleven Mile Creek, which had dioxin-tainted fish. As a result of the cleanup, a health warning about eating fish from the creek was lifted about a year ago, EPA officials said.

Environmental supervisor Kyle Moore says Champion has switched to bleaching with chlorine dioxide instead of chlorine to reduce its dioxin discharge and the discoloration of its wastewater.

But environmental groups retain a deep suspicion of the bleach mills after decades of heavy pollution and feuding.

In Bay County, environmental groups sued the county to improve its treatment of wastewater from Stone Container Corp.

"As soon as our lawsuit was filed, the company and county started doing everything they should have done," says Candis Harbison of the Audubon Society.

And there is the Fenholloway _ the state's only industrial river and the scene of one of its most bitter environmental battles.

Buckeye Florida's cellulose mill was once owned by Procter & Gamble, but former company executives have taken over in a partnership backed by Procter & Gamble.

Regulators found dioxin in fish

tissue in the Fenholloway downstream from Buckeye and a fish consumption advisory is still in effect. Seagrasses in the Gulf of Mexico died from the Fenholloway's inky water. And some Perry residents have complained bitterly that the plant ruined their well water, which smelled bad and was discolored.

"Industry has got to realize that human life is more important than the dollar bill," says area resident Sarah Paris, who blames the mill for the region's water problems.

Scientists found tiny fish _ relatives of the guppy _ in the Fenholloway and Eleven Mile Creek that had male and female characteristics. Buckeye officials said the cause of the fish characteristics is not certain and could be due to a naturally occurring phenomenon.

EPA research ecologist William Davis says the characteristics of the fish, which were nicknamed "bearded ladyfish," were not related to dioxin. But Davis says the unusual fish apparently were linked to a plant product released during the process of breaking down wood chips into pulp for use in making paper.

Now Buckeye has proposed a $39-million cleanup plan to restore wetlands at the headwaters of the Fenholloway, make its discolored effluent clearer, inject oxygen in its treated wastewater and build a pipeline to discharge the wastewater at the mouth of the Fenholloway.

Cummings, who lives near the company's Perry plant, is not impressed by the cleanup plan.

"They're buying time," she says. "The fact that they want to build a pipe from the current discharge point to the Gulf of Mexico will not solve this problem. It's kind of ridiculous that the state and federal government would let them do it."

Buckeye spokesman Dan Simmons acknowledges that some environmentalists and residents are skeptical: "Our position is, "Let's improve the river, preserve our economic base, but let's don't do something that will come back to haunt us.' "

TOXIC DISCHARGES

The top 10 Florida counties for discharge of toxic chemicals into surface water in 1993. Several counties have industries producing millions of gallons of polluted water, but they recycle it into huge wastewater treatment plants the industry helps the cities or counties finance.

1. Nassau 1,806,165 pounds

2. Santa Rosa 243,245 pounds

3. Duval 39,701 pounds

4. Escambia 18,440 pounds

5. Taylor 16,470 pounds

6. Putnam 12,198 pounds

7. Pasco 4,463 pounds

8. Hillsborough 3,565 pounds

9. Hamilton 1,390 pounds

10. Manatee 1,100 pounds

_ Associated Press