For six years, a handful of advocates have waged a lonely battle against a giant wood pulp mill on North Florida's tiny Fenholloway River, near Perry.
Over and over, they have asked: Isn't there something the Buckeye Cellulose mill can do to cut the massive pollution that turns the river coffee-black, kills sea grasses in the Gulf of Mexico, and causes sex changes in fish?
Friday, federal pulp mill experts finally gave an answer: yes.
National experts from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came to Tallahassee and said the Buckeye mill, which supplies consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, could cut water use, reduce chemical spills and make other process changes that would clean the waste that flows into the Fenholloway.
"There clearly are technologies . . . to reduce the pollutants discharged from this mill," said Don Anderson, an EPA expert who has reviewed hundreds of pulp mills worldwide.
The mill could make most of the products it makes now, Anderson said, and create less pollution.
"The changes would make the mill more modern and competitive," Anderson said.
The news energized the tiny audience, made up of Taylor County locals organized as the Friends of the Fenholloway.
For years, Buckeye has said it is doing all it can to cut pollution. Buckeye spokesman Dan Simmons said the EPA experts haven't convinced the company.
Buckeye and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection have another plan: Build a 15-mile pipe to send the waste farther out, into an estuary that leads to the Gulf of Mexico.
That prospect has alarmed commercial fishermen and crabbers in the area, who say the pulp mill waste will poison marine nursery grounds. The EPA also was concerned and put a 60-day hold on the mill's permit until experts could take a look at Buckeye's operations.
The waste pipe would empty into the gulf 5 miles from the Big Bend Seagrass Aquatic preserve.
Danny Metcalf, who runs a crab company in Wakulla County, south of Tallahassee, said crabs caught at the Fenholloway's mouth are often dead when crabbers pull up the traps. When he steams live crabs caught there, he said, the meat turns black and he has to throw the crabs away.
But Simmons said the pipeline plan, combined with changes the mill intends to make to clean its waste, will keep the gulf and river cleaner than the proposals the EPA has suggested.
Next week, the EPA is scheduled to release comments on the mill's pipeline permit.