Two years after a multinational corporation constructed a pipeline to dump its waste in Florida’s largest river, our very own St. Johns River, a scientist found a significant difference in the diversity and abundance of river life around the pipeline. The scientist said more research was needed to pinpoint the cause and evaluate the health of the river. The corporation said it had done enough research and told the scientist he would have to reach a more acceptable conclusion.
Dr. Tim Gross refused. So Georgia-Pacific hired another consultant to tell a different story with the same data.
Then, Florida’s environmental regulatory agency — the same one that permitted the pipeline and approved the study, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection — determined that Gross’ University of Florida-backed report did not meet permit requirements, and is reviewing G-P’s chosen replacement analysis, authored by Russ Frydenborg, to determine how to proceed.
Gross has 30 years of experience evaluating the cleanliness of waterways, having conducted studies for many companies in the paper and pulp industry, including G-P. He says the new study cherry-picks data and uses faulty science to come to a conclusion more acceptable to G-P. He says the FDEP isn’t doing its job, and the biological integrity of the St. Johns River is at stake.
“I counted on FDEP to do their job, read the report and contact me to ask questions,” Gross says. “If I saw the report and I was them, I sure as hell would have some questions. They never contacted me. I gave up at that point. I was hard-nosed about it, and made sure G-P turned the report in. There’s not much else I can do.”
St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman says she first became aware of the two differing studies late in the summer of 2015, and it wasn’t until she started asking questions of FDEP that they took notice.
Gross says the FDEP finally called him in September 2015 (the study was submitted that March). Eventually, the FDEP backed the Frydenborg study.
Gross and Rinaman say there is more at stake than what is coming out of the pipeline. With water withdrawals approved on the river to the south, the Ocklawaha, a major tributary of the St. Johns, still damned to the west, and the potential for a major dredging project in Jacksonville to the north, the consequences of a potentially dirty pipeline could grow exponentially.
“FDEP is completely backing G-P and refusing to do their job. If it was just G-P and their discharge, this wouldn’t be such a big deal. I’m not saying this is a disaster. The sky is not falling… yet,” Gross says.
But he says they had better be watching in case it does.
IN THE PIPELINE
From 1947 to 2012, Georgia-Pacific discharged its waste into Rice Creek, a tributary of the St. Johns River in Palatka. But after studies showed an alarming concentration of cancer-causing dioxin was found in fish from the creek in 2002, a Florida administrative judge ordered G-P to build a pipeline to dump the discharge directly into the St. Johns to dilute the waste if it couldn’t be cleaned up.
After the pipeline — invisible from above the river’s waters, extending to a point just south of Rice Creek — was built and G-P spent hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades to its plant, Rice Creek was still dirty. Environmentalists and river advocates argued over the ineffectiveness of the proposed pipeline, but that did little except delay its construction. G-P hired Gross in 2007 (he had worked with G-P for more than 10 years as a consultant in one capacity or another), to conduct a study on the potential impacts of the pipeline, per an FDEP permit.
The study, according to Gross, was designed by a former St. Johns River Water Management District employee, and had been approved by G-P and FDEP by the time he got his hands on it. He saw issues with the study, and asked if he could redesign it. G-P refused, saying it didn’t want to go through the approval and permitting process again with FDEP. So, after a few tweaks, and several approvals of the study by FDEP in 2006, 2007 and 2010, Gross and co-author Oliver Burgess, a University of Florida graduate student, began collecting data in 2010.
Gross and Burgess — who earned a PhD on the basis of this study — collected data across several trophic levels of river organisms, including plankton, shoreline aquatic vegetation, macro-invertebrates and fish. They studied four areas up to 10 kilometers north and south of the pipeline’s eventual location, using the data collected two years prior to compare directly with the data collected two years after the pipeline was constructed.
The goal was “to assess any potential impacts from the discharge,” according to FDEP’s permit language for the study.
“If the evaluation shows an adverse impact that violates any biological related water quality criterion including biological integrity as specified in Rule 62-302.530(10), the Department may open this permit to require additional monitoring or other corrective actions,” according to the permit.
Gross met numerous times with FDEP and G-P officials over the course of the study, to share results and ensure the study was moving in the right direction, he says.
Gross wrote in the study that “only clear compelling evidence of ‘adverse effects’ or impacts would subsequently lead to a recommendation that additional field assessments and evaluations be warranted.”
In other words, he wouldn’t recommend more monitoring unless there were obvious negative effects.
Much to his surprise, Gross did find that clear, compelling evidence.
“There’s a greater than 25 percent effect on the diversity and abundance of plankton, macro-invertebrates, shoreline aquatic vegetation and fish,” Gross says, which exceeded the threshold set by the FDEP’s permit to be considered significant.
“It surprised the hell outta me. I had not expected to see a fundamental shift. Sure, I expected some differences, whether or not they were broad or of concern; they were surprising and potentially disturbing. To exceed a 25 percent change is scientifically significant,” he says.
“That’s an honest, open and frank interpretation. What I find is what I have to live with,” he says.
But he couldn’t pin the effects on the pipeline or on natural causes, Gross admits.
Because the study was designed to only evaluate the biological integrity of the river before and after the pipeline (to collect data, essentially), the presence of significant changes did not necessarily mean it was due to the pipeline, Gross says. There were differences in rainfall and temperature in the two years before and after the pipeline was constructed. Plus, the differences existed all over the study area, even up to 10km away from the pipeline, suggesting there might be other factors at work, Gross says.
The bottom line: Gross thought they needed more information.
“We would have liked to [rule out the pipeline],” he says. “The first step was to determine if there was any magnitude and consistency. That must be followed up with more research. That’s normal with science. We can’t answer all the questions in one study without 10 times the manpower and budget. Now we can ask more questions,” he says.
NO MORE QUESTIONS
Gross says that when he recommended that more monitoring should be done after he shared his study in 2014, his findings were not well received.
“I may have thought they wouldn’t love the results, but I had no reason to expect them to ask me to change my conclusion,” says Gross.
This time, G-P told Gross that his study “can’t say there is more work to do. It cannot say it could be due to the discharge,” Gross says.
G-P denies that it told him to change his conclusions, but suggested, rather, that there were other problems with Gross’ study.
“In looking at the data that Dr. Gross presented in the initial study, our environmental staff interpreted the data differently than Dr. Gross. Dr. Gross did not statistically evaluate the data as required in FDEP permit,” says Terry Hadaway, public affairs manager for Georgia-Pacific’s Palatka operations.
“We asked Dr. Gross to evaluate the data in the context of FDEP’s water quality standards that were required by our permit. He did not do that. So we felt we needed to find a consultant with considerably more regulatory and statistical experience. We wanted to make sure it was evaluated in the context of water quality standards. We did not ask him to change his conclusions,” Hadaway says.
Now, FDEP and Frydenborg, who G-P hired in December 2014 to re-evaluate the data, are alleging that Gross’ identification procedures, of not identifying plants and animals down to the species level (Gross stopped at the genus level) does not meet FDEP’s requirements, says St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman, who has met with FDEP and Frydenborg in the last month about how they will proceed.
(FDEP emailed Folio Weekly Magazine a statement, but it did not address issues with the Gross study.)
Gross argues that FDEP had “ample opportunity” to say something was wrong with the study the numerous times it was approved.
But even so, Gross says that has virtually no effect on his analysis of the data or his conclusions.
G-P held onto Gross’ study, which he finalized in October 2014, even threatening to not turn it over to FDEP, Gross says. After he didn’t hear from G-P for two months after turning in the completed study, G-P called in late December to ask Gross to work with the newly hired Frydenborg on his re-analysis.
Hadaway says it took time for G-P’s scientists to sort through Gross’ study, and because they had different opinions about his conclusions, and thought the study did not address the “statistical requirements of the permit,” they hired Frydenborg for his “regulatory experience.”
Frydenborg did not return calls from Folio Weekly Magazine seeking comment by press time, but research shows he worked for FDEP before becoming a private consultant.
“We felt there were going to be results that were going to be detrimental to us. FDEP agreed,” Hadaway said.
Gross says he was happy to work with Frydenborg, but took issue with how Frydenborg planned to manipulate the data.
According to Gross and Rinaman, Frydenborg wanted to use the study area south of the pipeline as a reference site for scientific control and compare it to the area around the pipeline. Gross says that would be inappropriate because of several significant differences in depth, water flow and aquatic vegetation at the points south on the river. He also says the EPA and FDEP agreed no control site existed when they were fine-tuning this original study.
When Gross told Frydenborg his opinion of the re-analysis plans, Gross says he got a disturbing response from the second scientist.
“Give me the data, you and G-P will like what you see when I’m done,” Gross says Frydenborg told him.
“This ‘selective re-analysis’ that was done is inappropriate. It’s poor science, and it’s unethical, to be honest,” Gross says.
Meanwhile, after receiving both studies in March 2015, FDEP has begun meeting with G-P, Frydenborg, Rinaman and Jacksonville University representatives to best determine how to move forward with more monitoring. In a meeting in late January, FDEP and G-P committed to more monitoring in some capacity.
“We are exploring opportunities with G-P on how they can look at the data collected in context of other water quality and trophic information for those time periods. In addition, G-P is also considering some additional macro-invertebrate sampling and analysis,” wrote FDEP Northeast District Ombudsman Russell Simpson in an email.
“We are having ongoing discussions with our bio-assessment experts, G-P, the St. Johns Riverkeeper and representatives from Jacksonville University to ensure the additional study adequately provides our experts with the information they need to definitively determine whether adverse impacts have occurred,” Simpson wrote.
Rinaman is cautiously optimistic about this latest development, but wants to make sure the further monitoring is done fairly.
“The fact that FDEP and G-P have potentially agreed to do more monitoring is a step forward. It’s critical that we get this right moving forward. We haven’t gotten it right, yet,” she says.
Rinaman says those adverse effects were clearly illustrated in Gross’ study, and FDEP should take responsibility as the regulatory agency and hold G-P accountable.
“Our position is, if the threshold was tripped, and there are red flags in the St. Johns River, which Dr. Gross’ study clearly shows that it was, DEP has the responsibility to determine what’s happening in the river,” she says.
“DEP has a responsibility to understand the scope of their own permit. The permit is up in 2017. It’s DEP’s responsibility to act on behalf of the citizens who depend on the St. Johns River.”