Right of Passage

There are certain milestone events like graduation, marriage and the birth of a child that mark our transition through the stages of adulthood. For a conservative Republican like me who’s also a newly minted member of Jacksonville’s City Council, one particularly discomfiting — but probably inevitable — milestone event was to receive the scornful rebuke of Editor Anne Schindler in the Dec. 20 issue of Folio Weekly (“Rhymes with Lumb,” http://bit.ly/vySyUr).

My offense?

I offered a substitute to Councilman Jim Love’s original resolution that addressed regulatory issues involving Georgia-Pacific’s Palatka paper mill; a substitute that Schindler characterized as “an amazingly cynical piece of stagecraft that [told] the [Department of Environmental Protection] … to keep doing what they’ve always done.”

With all due respect to Ms. Schindler, that’s not exactly accurate.

My substitute resolution asked Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to “carefully review all current, pending and future permit applications and to take whatever steps are reasonably necessary to ensure that any effluent discharged [by] Georgia-Pacific … meet[s] the guidelines and water quality standards established by the EPA and the State of Florida … [ensuring] that all permits contain the appropriate conditions for the protection of the St. Johns River …”.

As I’ve written elsewhere, if you respect the rule of law, what more can we demand?

Before I go into detail about my concerns with Councilman Love’s original resolution, it’s important to understand that the legal authority that controls DEP’s regulatory oversight of Georgia-Pacific is an Administrative Order issued in 2002. The result of litigation brought by a consortium of environmental groups against the Palatka mill back in the ’90s, this legally binding ruling, issued by an administrative law judge, details the process by which the DEP is to apply the law and bring Georgia-Pacific into compliance. It’s not subject to modification by City Council or any other legislative body.

Knowing this, I had two basic problems with Councilman Love’s original resolution.

First, Love’s resolution asserted the existence of “affordable new technologies that can solve the mill’s pollution problems.” DEP chief Herschel Vinyard, however, is on record saying that scientists and engineers from his agency met with Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon and his consultant on three separate occasions in 2011 and “concluded that nothing presented during any of these meetings substantiated the claim that there is any viable alternative to relocating the discharge [from the St. Johns River]”, i.e., no affordable new pollution control technologies were ever identified.

Second, the Love resolution insisted that the DEP allow “independent scientists … to study the source of pollution and offer proper remedies.” Notwithstanding that “independent scientists” have yet to offer anything concrete, I’ve read the Administrative Order and it makes no provision for the insertion of “independent scientists” into the process laid out in that document.

If City Council’s objective were to crank out a resolution to satisfy some political purpose, then Councilman Love’s iteration would have fit the bill nicely. But City Council resolutions are not trivial matters. They carry with them the weight and authority of the consolidated City of Jacksonville and should not contain conjecture or prescribe remedies that have no legal basis.

Rather than attempting to revamp the regulatory process on the fly and in a manner that seeks to contravene a binding Administrative Order, my resolution insisted on the one thing that made the most sense: that City Council expects the DEP to follow the law and enforce the regulations that are in place.

While this may offend Schindler’s sensibilities, in reality it was the only option available.

For the benefit of Folio Weekly readers who would like to understand the dioxin issue in context, I’d like to offer a few additional facts that could prove helpful as they deliberate on the controversy surrounding Georgia-Pacific and dioxin: • The release of dioxin from man-made sources has decreased by more than 90 percent since 1987. As for dioxin levels in humans, they’ve declined by more than 50 percent. Note: Because dioxin has a half-life (the time it takes to dissipate by 50 percent) of 7 to 10 years, the reduction of dioxin in humans lags behind dioxin reduction in the environment. • In 2000, the total amount of dioxin released into the environment by all the paper mills in the United States combined was only 1.1 grams (less than 1/20th of an ounce) out [of] a total anthropogenic (man-made) release of 1,422 grams (approximately 3-1/4 pounds). When forest fires are factored in, which are believed to account for approximately 54 percent of all dioxin releases, the paper industry contributes less than four-hundredths of 1 percent of the dioxin entering the environment each year. If every paper mill in the U.S. closed tomorrow, dioxin levels would remain virtually unchanged. • According to calculations based on EPA data, a reasonable estimation is that the average American adult ingests about 60 picograms (a picogram is one-trillionth of a gram) of dioxin per day. Multiplied out over the entire population, this means the combined annual intake for all American adults is less than 7 grams (1/4 ounce) of dioxin per year. With approximately 3,100 grams of dioxin released annually from all sources, the good news is that only 1/4 of 1 percent of all dioxin is actually ingested by adults. In the case of Georgia-Pacific, and assuming their paper mill is discharging at the levels alleged by its opponents, their contribution would be less than 17,000 of the 72,900,000 picograms of dioxin ingested each and every day by First Coast adults. • Whenever Georgia-Pacific is discussed, the conversation quickly turns to the test results purporting to show the mill exceeding allowable discharge limits for dioxin “by a factor of four or five.” These claims are based on HVS (high volume sampling) testing done in 2008 that showed dioxin levels in its pond system as high as .077 picograms per liter. The problem is that HVS testing is not a method approved by the EPA and cannot be used by the DEP for compliance or enforcement purposes until sufficient data are available to validate its use. • In 2001, Georgia-Pacific changed its manufacturing process to “elemental chlorine free.” This meant switching to chlorine dioxide which, unlike elemental chlorine, does not produce the free radicals associated with dioxin formation. Did it work? In 2008, and concurrent with the HVS testing, G-P used an approved testing procedure to test for dioxin in its primary clarifier where wastewater is held prior to its discharge into the retention ponds. The results were “non-detect” for dioxin. Because the primary clarifier contains large concentrations of spent solids collected during the manufacturing process, dioxin, if it were present, would be detected here first. • That dioxin is not migrating from the retention ponds into Rice Creek at excessive levels appears to be supported by DEP test results, demonstrating a dramatic reduction in dioxin levels in fish from Rice Creek. According to the DEP, levels of dioxin in the fatty tissue — where dioxin accumulates — have fallen significantly in recent years and in 2010 were well below what would be expected if Georgia-Pacific were violating discharge standards.

Since my view of this issue is clearly at odds with Ms. Schindler’s, I want to be clear that I support the stringent regulation of dioxin and expect the DEP to bring Georgia-Pacific into compliance with all applicable environmental standards.

But if our goal is to understand the dioxin issue in context and to properly evaluate any associated risk, then it defies logic for Georgia-Pacific’s critics to insist that its Palatka paper mill is the epicenter of any crisis.

In 2010, George Gray, a toxicologist who once headed up the science and technology arm of the EPA, offered the best summation I’ve come across from someone at the heart of the regulatory process: “In many ways our dioxin problem is going away. Emissions are down 90 percent … [and] the biggest sources [of dioxin] are now uncontrolled backyard burning … in rural areas. It’s not industry. It’s not paper mills. It’s none of the traditional sources. They’ve cleaned up.”

The resolution I presented in City Council instructs the DEP to focus on the one thing that can keep this clean-up on track: Enforce the law. Robin L

Lumb is an At-Large member of the Jacksonville City Council.