Gulf may get river's waste

Published Jan. 12, 1997|Updated Sept. 30, 2005

Something strange is happening to fish in north Florida's Fenholloway River: Some of the females are developing male sex organs.

Researchers at the University of West Florida and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency think pollution from an upstream wood pulp mill is the culprit. They say that the phenomenon, which has shown up in three fish species so far, could contaminate the food chain, spreading to other aquatic species and even affecting people who eat the fish.

Now, the researchers are alarmed about a river cleanup plan recently announced by the state and the pulp mill. The mill will stop discharging into the river's upper reaches and instead pump its treated waste through a 15-mile pipeline to the mouth of the Fenholloway. There, the waste would be diluted as it flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.

The state has announced its intention to issue a permit for the pipeline. Members of the public have two weeks beginning Monday to request a hearing by contacting the Department of Environmental Protection.

Piping the plant's waste to the Fenholloway estuary "could have a very broad effect," said Stephen Bortone, a University of West Florida professor who has been studying the masculinized fish for more than a decade.

"It could go into oyster communities, it could accumulate in the food chain," he said. "These are fish which are eaten by other fish. It could have long-term effects on humans in the area if they eat the fish."

Bortone and his colleagues have tied the fish deformities to pulp mill waste. But they do not know which compound causes the phenomenon, and they do not know what effect it may have in an estuary, which is a marine nursery.

The waste pipe would empty its contents 5 miles away from the Big Bend Seagrass Aquatic Preserve, a prime marine wilderness area that is home to manatees, rare sea turtles and juvenile sport fish and shellfish.

"I think anybody who eats shellfish out of the gulf ought to be concerned," said Dick Batchelor, who voted for the Fenholloway pipeline plan as chairman of the state's Environmental Regulation Commission. "Unfortunately, I think it is what I would call a Hobson's choice: There are no good choices."

Dilution solution

Consumer products giant Procter & Gamble built the mill in 1952, putting Perry on the map.

Four years ago, Procter & Gamble sold the mill to Buckeye Cellulose, which is run by former Procter & Gamble executives. The company still is the Perry mill's biggest customer for pulp, which is used in such products as disposable diapers, rayon fabric, coffee filters, automobile tires, sausage casings and pharmaceuticals.

Buckeye Cellulose, which owns several other mills, saw its net earnings double in the 1996 fiscal year.

Today, even Buckeye officials agree with environmentalists that building the mill on the Fenholloway was a mistake, because the river is too small to handle the plant's waste.

The mill chews up pine trees 24 hours a day, discharging 50-million gallons of effluent into the river.

Plant officials say that kind of volume would have less impact on the environment if it could be diluted. But some critics call the pipeline project a '40s solution to a '90s pollution problem. Their favorite slogan is "dilution is not the solution to pollution."

"It's not just our problem here in Florida," said Linda Young, southeast regional coordinator for the Clean Water Network. "Our seafood gets shipped all over the country."

Buckeye spokesman Dan Simmons says the company looked at more than 100 kinds of technology before settling on the pipeline. All told, he said, the company is spending more than $39-million to improve the plant, the river and a nearby swamp.

The pollution isn't just being pumped away, he said, it also is being reduced. Improvements at the mill will reduce chlorine use by half, reducing the chance that harmful dioxin compounds will be released. The company has been working to reduce dioxin for several years. In 1990, state officials banned fishing in the river because of dioxin contamination. Today, Buckeye has no detectable dioxin discharge, Simmons said. The fishing ban, however, still is in effect.

"What's going to happen as a result of this total project is that water quality in the gulf will be improved," Simmons said.

Phil Coram, the state Department of Environmental Protection's permitting chief, agrees. Coram says the waste that will come out of the new pipe will be cleaner than what flows out of the Fenholloway into the gulf now.

"The project does nothing to aggravate that situation," Coram said. "The stuff was flowing down the river anyway."

Florida's industrial river

The Fenholloway is the only river that Florida ever officially designated for industrial use. In 1947, the state relaxed standards to lure Procter & Gamble to Taylor County.

Under those standards, the pollution there is legal. Like other industries, the paper mill monitors itself, testing its own waste and sending the results to the state.

But years of pumping groundwater, using it to make wood pulp and then discharging chemical-laden waste has devastated the local environment.

As it flows down the Fenholloway, the pulp mill's waste stresses aquatic life. Sea grasses at the Fenholloway's mouth are dead for miles out into the gulf.

Although springs along the river once were home to a health resort and the Fenholloway Bottling Co., no one swims there now. The mill's constant groundwater pumping dried up the springs.

For years, private drinking water wells in Perry have produced water that is brown and smelly. Procter & Gamble often drilled new wells and handed out free bottled water.

Several years ago, more than 100 residents with bad water filed a federal class-action suit against the company, but it was dismissed because the homeowners could not prove enough financial damage. Buckeye and Florida taxpayers paid to connect affected homeowners to city water.

Despite years of testing, the state has never conclusively tied the well pollution to the paper mill, mostly because the chemicals at issue are so complex. There are chemicals in the waste and in the wells the state can't identify.

"Bearded lady' fish

Nothing in the pipeline project or in Buckeye's state discharge permit addresses the issue of masculinized fish. Instead, the state and Buckeye Cellulose have focused on the most vexing problems of pulp and paper mill pollution: the water's dark color, low oxygen content, saltiness and excess nutrients.

But researchers studying the deformed fish say that whatever is making the female fish look and act like males could get into the food chain and spread to marine species in the gulf.

Wil Davis, a researcher in the Gulf Breeze laboratory of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, coined the term "bearded lady" fish to describe the phenomenon several years ago.

He calls the pipeline an "an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to something that needs close attention."

"If you take 50-million gallons of wastewater every day out of a river and put it in the gulf, you've just created a new situation," Davis said.

Sexual deformities in animals have shown up nationwide, but research on the problem is in its infancy. Florida's most celebrated case involves male alligators in polluted Lake Apopka that have diminished penises.

Buckeye spokesman Simmons said that the Fenholloway's "bearded ladies" haven't been tied conclusively to pulp mill waste. He said the phenomenon occurs elsewhere in nature.

"There apparently is no harmful effect on the mosquito fish," Simmons said. "There are still plenty of mosquito fish."

Robert "Skip" Livingston, a Florida State University scientist hired by Buckeye to study the Fenholloway, said there's no evidence that the substance that is masculinizing the freshwater fish will affect saltwater species.

"We've never studied it, per se," Livingston said. "We have been collecting fishes in the Fenholloway system since 1971. We've never seen this happen to the saltwater fishes."

But Davis, the EPA researcher, said a similar phenomenon has been discovered in eels near Pensacola. During their life cycle, eels live in both freshwater and saltwater, he said.

Bortone and other researchers have raised mosquito fish in a lab and added paper mill effluent to their tanks. The female fish grow up with male sex organs, but they still bear live young.

The deformed fish first were discovered in north Florida in 1979 at Eleven Mile Creek, near the Champion Paper mill outside Pensacola. While studying something else, a researcher thought he was finding nothing but male mosquito fish. On closer inspection, he discovered live young inside the fish. Upstream from the paper mill, he found no abnormal fish.

The researcher traveled to the pulp mill on the Fenholloway and found the same thing.

Today, the strange fish are harder to find in Eleven Mile Creek, and Bortone suspects that's because of treatment changes at the Champion plant.

Bortone says no state regulators have asked him about the deformed fish, though he's been talking about them for a decade.

"Everybody chuckles over fish that change sex," Bortone said. "People think it is amusing.

"But the truth is, the state needs to look at it. One, we need to know what the long-term effects are. Two, the state needs to monitor it. Three, we need to identify the very specific compound, or compounds, that are responsible.

"Then, hopefully, the paper mills can alter their process to prevent this."

A company town

For Dick Batchelor, the Environmental Regulation Commission chairman, the Buckeye plant provides a simple lesson.

"Are we willing to waive environmental standards to attract business?" he asked. "Whenever we ask that question, someone should always use the Buckeye plant as a case study.

"We waived the rules in 1947 for Buckeye. The people who live there have paid a horrific price for it."

Despite their polluted river, Perry's residents have benefited from Buckeye Cellulose, and many are staunchly loyal.

The mill is the largest employer in Taylor County, and publicity about the pollution caused bitter divisions there. In 1994, the bitterness surfaced during a five-hour public meeting in Perry, where Buckeye employees lambasted environmentalists and regulators. Still, Batchelor's commission voted to strip the Fenholloway of the industrial label it carried for nearly 50 years.

At the end of this year, the Fenholloway will be upgraded to a Class 3 river, meaning it has to be clean enough for fishing and swimming. But it probably won't be that clean for another several years, so Buckeye has applied for variances from state law to give the company time to finish its pipeline plan.

At the Taylor County Chamber of Commerce, president Mike Deming welcomes the company's cleanup plan.

"I think everybody is real optimistic that it will improve the river, and that Buckeye is making a real good effort," he said.

Joy Towles Cummings, a Taylor County rancher, disagrees.

When Cummings went to get her free bottled water from Procter & Gamble several years ago, she brought along a crew from television's 60 Minutes. She carried a tank of contaminated fish to Washington in the back of a pickup truck and presented them to Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Carol Browner. She went to Cincinnati, to the home of Procter & Gamble's president, and knocked on his door. When his wife answered, Cummings stood there with a jug of contaminated water.

"Ma'am," she said, in a deep Panhandle drawl. "Your husband is polluting our water something awful."

Cummings' stance is not a popular one in a company town like Perry.

But she vows to fight the pipeline "until I'm an old woman, or until I'm dead."

"If they can get that black muck . . . into the pipe, then we won't see it," she said.

"But out of sight doesn't mean it's not still polluting the people and the fish."