This was not the first bout between Rayonier Advanced Materials and environmental groups, and it will not be the last. In June 2016, Administrative Law Judge Kimberly Schroer issued an order stating the company’s Jesup plant — the largest specialty cellulose facility in the world, involving more than 800 workers — broke state water quality laws in discharging its wastewater into the Altamaha River.
Friday, Superior Court Judge Stephen Kelley reversed that position, allowing business to continue as usual. The plant operates under a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit.
“We’re pleased with the court’s decision,” Rayonier Advanced Materials Senior Vice President Bill Manzer said in a statement. “At the outset of this process, we expressed confidence in the permit developed by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division and approved by the U.S. (Environmental Protection Agency). That permit resulted from a years-long process that focused on the data, the science and the river. The decision of the Superior Court confirms our view of the facts and the law and affirms EPD’s permit.
“Our Jesup plant will now begin operating under this new permit. Without question, the court’s decision is good news for our plant and the hundreds of hardworking Georgians who work there.”
Rayonier discharges around 50 million to 60 million gallons of effluent into the river every day, the result of removing lignin from the manufacturing process. Lignin is an organic connecting substance found between and in plant cells.
Litigation regarding alleged illegalities involving the plant stretch back more than a decade in both state and federal courts.
“Rayonier AM’s discharge into the river, which is clearly visible both at the river’s surface and from above, often causes a dark, malodorous plume to extend down the river and fishermen have complained that it renders fish inedible for many miles downstream,” Don Stack, one of the attorneys involved in the lawsuit on behalf of environmental groups, said in a statement.
Altamaha Riverkeeper Jen Hilburn said in a statement the plaintiffs in the case intend to appeal the decision.
“Fishermen, kayakers and recreationists of all sorts are aware of the awful stench and stain that is pumped into the river daily by Rayonier AM, and that it interferes with citizens’ legitimate uses of the river,” Hilburn said. “Without installing proper water treatment methods, we are concerned that Rayonier AM’s profitability will continue to receive priority over the rights of Georgians.”
Whether or not the fish smell and taste like something other than fish has been up for debate. The Press-Sentinel in Jesup reported at a hearing in June 2016, some area residents said the odor is clearly evident and the fish have to be thrown back. A woman said the pollution rendered the fish so foul-tasting they cannot be eaten.
However, state Department of Natural Resources staff said they did not detect anything particularly unusual about fish caught near the discharge site.
A federal lawsuit brought by the Altamaha Riverkeeper against Rayonier in 2001 was settled after the company agreed to enhanced pollution control measures, While the company did tighten their procedures, the plaintiffs maintained that did not fix the problem.
Another suit decided in March 2015 held Rayonier was operating legally under its discharge elimination permit, regardless of what was going into the water.
“As a matter of law, then, the permit does not incorporate Georgia’s water quality standards enumerated in Rule 391-3-6-.03(5)© as conditions of the permit,” Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said in her 2015 order. “Without an alleged violation of a condition of Rayonier’s permit, the Riverkeeper no longer has a basis for its (Clean Water Act) citizen suit, and the court must grant Rayonier’s motion for summary judgment as to the Riverkeeper’s CWA claims.
“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 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 EPD issued a new discharge elimination system permit to the facility in January 2016. Company officials have said Rayonier spent around $70 million since 2008 in upgrades and recycling technology.
Indeed, perceived improper timing of the announcement of spending so much money on environmental issues that led to a federal class-action lawsuit — filed in April 2015 and decided a year later — by investment funds against Rayonier as the company was spinning off its performance fibers division. The district judge in that matter said the plaintiffs did not have a strong-enough case, and ruled in favor of Rayonier.
The company settled a similar but more narrowly focused class-action lawsuit on March 13 of this year, agreeing to pay investors $73 million after Rayonier admitted to overstating its global timber inventory and understating its expenses in 2014, leading to a 9.1 percent drop in stock value.