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2020 offers chance to intervene in permit review of alleged polluter of Altamaha River

Altamaha River

Some fishermen say they won't eat fish caught in the Altamaha River because of the effluent from the Rayonier plant. Credit: Brian Foster / Georgia Conservancy

By David Pendered

The Georgia Water Coalition released its annual Dirty Dozen report Thursday and – for the seventh time – the report names the Rayonier Advanced Materials chemical pulp mill in Jesup as a polluter of the Altamaha River. Improvements could come in 2020, and a federal court order has observed the Altamaha Riverkeeper can play a role in the improvement process.

Altamaha River

Some fishermen say they won’t eat fish caught in the Altamaha River because of the effluent from the Rayonier plant. Credit: Brian Foster / Georgia Conservancy

Rayonier’s water pollution control permit is due for renewal in 2020, according to the Dirty Dozen report. Such permit applications are reviewed by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, of the state Department of Natural Resources.

In a 2014 lawsuit filed by the Altamaha Riverkeeper against Rayonier, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Lisa Godbey Wood issued an order in favor of Rayonier.

In a notable portion of the ruling, Wood wrote that while the riverkeeper lost the case, the riverkeeper can pursue its concerns about water quality through the administrative channels related to the discharge permit issued by Georgia EPD under the federal Clean Water Act:

  • “Furthermore, while the Riverkeeper’s CWA claim will not go forward, the Riverkeeper is not without recourse. Under the Permit’s ‘Modification Clause,’ the Riverkeeper may ask Georgia EPD to modify the Permit so that it explicitly incorporates Rule 391-3-6-.03(5) (c)’s narrative water quality standards as conditions of the permit.”

Wood wrote in the ruling that Georgia EPD did not intend for Rayonier’s existing permit to include all the standards of the federal Clean Water Act. Wood observed:

  • “Looking solely to the Permit itself, it is apparent that the Georgia EPD did not believe that the Permit, as written, would necessarily include conditions designed to achieve water quality standards established under the CWA and Georgia Regulations.”

That said, the judge stated clearly that her ruling in favor of Rayonier was based on the determination that the issue in the case brought by the riverkeeper was one of contract law, not of the Clean Water Act. Wood wrote:

  • “The matter is strictly a question of contract law: does Defendant Rayonier Inc.’s NPDES [federal discharge] permit, which allows it to discharge wastewater into the Altamaha River under certain conditions, include Georgia’s water quality standards for color, odor, and turbidity as some of those conditions? This Court finds that it does not, as a matter of law….”

Wood’s ruling further noted her ruling did not address the effluent Rayonier discharged into the Altamaha River:

  • “The Court does not intend this holding to suggest that Rayonier’s discharges do not have a harmful effect on the Altamaha River, or that the Riverkeeper’s alleged injuries are trivial.
  • “To the contrary, those effects may be deleterious, and Rayonier’s discharges may, in fact, violate Georgia’s narrative water quality standards.
  • “The Court’s holding is simply that the Riverkeeper must show a violation of Rayonier’s NPDES Permit [federal discharge permit] to bring its CWA citizen suit, and here it failed to show that compliance with the relevant water quality standards is a condition of Rayonier’s NPDES Permit.”

The Georgia Water Coalition suggested in a statement accompanying the release of the Dirty Dozen report that it holds little hope for the situation to be improved:

  • “Next year, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) will issue a new pollution control permit for the facility. If EPD’s actions in recent years are any indication, it seems unlikely that this new permit will finally fix this ongoing pollution problem.
  • “The state agency has repeatedly defended the existing and weak pollution control permit and last year took the extraordinary effort of changing state laws to make it easier for RAM to continue polluting Georgia’s largest river.”

The full report on the Rayonier situation concludes:

  • “Next year, Altamaha River users will watch EPD closely as RAM’s pollution control permit is up for renewal. During this process, the state agency
    has the opportunity to enforce a permit that will bring the mill’s wastewater treatment system up to industry and Clean Water Act standards.
  • “EPD must issue a pollution control permit that will eliminate of the color and odor associated with Rayonier’s discharge into the Altamaha River and bring the facility up to modern, industry-accepted wastewater treatment standards.”



David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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