Jacksonville City Councilmember Robin Lumb is no environmental expert — he acknowledged as much at Tuesday night’s council meeting. And he generously attributed his gaps in knowledge to all of his colleagues, urging them to leave environmental matters to the experts — the legislative equivalent of “don’t worry your pretty little head about it.”
While it’s hard to insist that someone is more competent than they themselves claim, the bill before the council last week wasn’t actually all that complicated. It merely asked (in the gentle form of a council resolution, not a legally binding and enforceable council ordinance) that state regulators examine all options for treating the pollution coming from Georgia-Pacific’s paper mill in Palatka before allowing the mill to begin discharging it directly into the St. Johns River.
One might reasonably ask why such a bill is necessary. Isn’t that what regulators do anyway? In a word, no. Regulators have coddled G-P since “regulators” have been around (about 25 years less than the mill itself). They allowed G-P to destroy Rice Creek, polluting it with cancer-causing dioxins and spawning fish with sex deformities. They allowed the mill to delay for years its phase-out of chlorine-based chemicals — the primary source of the mill’s deadly dioxin. For several years in the early 1990s, they even allowed the plant to operate without a valid permit. And now those same regulators want to allow the mill to “solve” its pollution problem by relocating it from Rice Creek to the St. Johns River, via a 4-mile pipeline.
Which is why Councilmember Jim Love introduced his resolution in October. His intent, he says, was less to interfere with the work of the DEP than to let regulators know that the city demands better. He notes that although recent high-volume effluent tests have shown alarming levels of dioxin — 5 times the legal limit — regulators continue to resist that costly measurement, preferring smaller samples that have not detected dioxin.
“Yes, we are meddling with DEP and for good reason,” says Love. “Because we think the testing they’re doing is not up to snuff.”
The idea that regulators aren’t doing — or aren’t allowed to do — their job isn’t such a radical proposition. It’s the reason behind the 2008 bank meltdown, the mortgage crisis, the Greek debt debacle, the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, Walter Reed Medical Center abuses, Vioxx deaths and Bernie Madoff. Should we be surprised that local regulators at a poorly funded, politically vulnerable state agency might be cowed when dealing with a polluter that is both the economic heart of a small town (Palatka) and owned by mega-industrialists and political contributors (the Koch Brothers), who just happen to be buddies with the governor (Rick Scott)? No — just as we shouldn’t be surprised when Jacksonville City Councilmembers are similarly intimidated.
Of course, it’s one thing to resist antagonizing the beast. But it’s something else entirely to vote against a bill that protects the river. Which is the precarious place that 11 City Councilmembers found themselves in Tuesday night. Voting against Jim Love’s bill would have been hugely unpopular with constituents, who consistently say that protecting the river is a priority. So these 11 lawmakers sought political cover by voting for the Lumb “substitute” bill, an amazingly cynical piece of stagecraft that basically tells DEP regulators to keep doing what they’ve always done. (Just for the record, the lawmakers who chose this convenient dodge were Greg Anderson, Bill Bishop, Lori Boyer, Doyle Carter, Bill Gulliford, Stephen Joost, Robin Lumb, Don Redman, Matt Schellenberg and Clay Yarborough.) Rather than ignore or vote against Love’s bill, they replaced it with language that demands nothing, and voted “yea.”
It’s possible that Jim Love’s bill accomplished something, despite being hijacked by his colleagues. It certainly got the attention of DEP chief Herschel Vinyard, who narrowly dodged a political bullet, and it sent a strong message to Georgia-Pacific that plenty of people — including six city lawmakers — still find their pollution “solution” abhorrent. Whether that makes any difference in the life of the St. Johns River will, apparently, be left to the experts.