A statewide clean water advocacy group released its annual report of the 12 “worst offenses to Georgia’s waters” on Tuesday, naming three sites that impact Glynn County.
A pulp mill on the Altamaha River upstream from northern Glynn County, superfund site in Brunswick and the condition of Georgia’s freshwater aquifer all made the Georgia Water Coalition’s “Dirty Dozen” report for 2017.
Joe Cook, a spokesman for the the Coosa River Basin Initiative, one of the coalition’s 240 members, said the list is meant to educate the public and influence policy makers.
“A lot of people mistake this as a list of the 12 dirtiest waterways in Georgia, but it’s not that at all,” he said. “It’s a list highlighting problems that we as citizens think state leaders need to address.”
Terry Creek site
In Brunswick, the chemical plant outfall site formerly operated by Hercules on Terry Creek, east of U.S. Highway 17 and north of the F.J. Torras Causeway, made the list for what the coalition called “prolonged hazardous waste cleanup.”
From 1948 to 1980, the plant manufactured the cotton and soybean pesticide toxaphene. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the chemical is a likely human carcinogen. The Georgia Water Coalition reports as much as 2.5 million pounds of pesticide’s manufacturing waste was dumped into the marshes nearby the plant during its production period.
“Hercules is a ‘superfund site,’ meaning it’s been designated by the federal government as contaminated,” said Jen Hilburn, Altamaha Riverkeeper. “So, the federal EPA is trying to clean up the site.”
In July, the EPA released an interim plan to clean up the site, which would stop the continued release of toxaphene from the property via a ditch that flows into Terry and Dupree Creeks. The plan calls for leaving the contaminated soil in place and essentially covering it over with dirt, then re-routing the discharge through a man-made culvert.
The EPA plan does not call for any cleanup of groundwater, “a failing that leaves residents dependent on well water at risk,” the Dirty Dozen report says.
The Altamaha Riverkeeper also has other concerns. Chiefly, Hercules is represented by attorney Jud Turner, the former head of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Hilburn said under Turner’s counsel, Hercules hired a hydrogeologist who studied the groundwater and found trace amounts of saline.
She is concerned Hercules may use the findings to convince officials the small amounts of salt in the groundwater render it unsuitable for drinking.
“The important piece is once (groundwater) is considered unusable, then why in the world would a polluter have to clean it up? That could impact the entire state of Georgia,” she said. “All aquifers in Georgia are considered drinkable, unless the state EPD director says they’re not — which has never happened.”
A representative of Hercules said the company is committed to cleaning up the site and following the federal guidelines.
“Hercules is working to implement a remedy for the Terry Creek dredge spoil/Hercules outfall site that was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after many years of scientific and technical investigation, and after public participation including a public meeting and public comment period,” Tim Hassett, a spokesman for Ashland, a company now responsible for the site, said in a statement.
“The approved remediation plan will quickly and effectively eliminate environmental exposures to deeply buried sediment while not precluding the site from being redeveloped in the future and help the restoration of the waters around Terry and Dupree creeks,” he added.
About 40 miles northwest of Brunswick, the Rayonier Advanced Materials plant in Jesup put the Altamaha River on the Dirty Dozen list for the fifth time since 2011.
The report contends the Rayonier plant, a chemical pulp mill, is discharging 60 million gallons of pollutants per day into the river, discoloring the river and causing a foul, sulphuric smell.
The Altamaha Riverkeeper sought to force Rayonier to clean up the discharge, and in 2016 a state administrative law judge sided with the riverkeeper, saying the company was violating a 2015 pollution control permit issued by the state Environmental Protection Division.
But in March, a superior court judge in Wayne County, of which Jesup is the seat, reversed the administrative judge’s decision.
The riverkeeper is appealing the decision, which is now under consideration by the Georgia Court of Appeals. A ruling is expected sometime in early 2018, Hilburn said.
“Georgians deserve better,” Hilburn said. “We are not asking (Rayonier) to re-invent the wheel. We are asking them to use established, tertiary wastewater treatment.”
Clay Bethea, general manager of Rayonier’s Jesup mill, rebuked the charges and said the company was committed to keeping the river as a recreational opportunity for residents.
“This simply doesn’t reflect sound science,” he said in a statement. “We’ve operated along the banks of the Altamaha for more than three generations and invested over $70 million to make sure it remains a great place to fish, boat and enjoy the outdoors.”
Ryan Houck, a spokesman for Rayonier, also took issue with some of the Dirty Dozen’s claims. In the report, the Georgia Water Coalition states the EPD in 2008 gave Rayonier eight years to reduce the color of discharge by 50 percent. The report says Rayonier never achieved the goal.
“This is not true,” Houck said. “Since 2008, we have reduced color by more than 65 percent and surpassed the goals of the consent order.”
Georgia’s well water
The Dirty Dozen report also took aim at well water accessed by Georgians for drinking. The report argues the disposal of coal ash in landfills could cause contaminants to leach into drinking water, causing harmful effects in people.
Coal ash, a byproduct of coal-powered energy production, contains arsenic, mercury, lead and other known cancer-causing toxins. Environmentalists worry the linings used in landfills that accept coal ash can fail, allowing these toxins to leach into aquifers and, later, well water.
“No one should have to worry about their drinking water,” the report states. “When Coastal Georgia legislators introduced bills to address the risks posed by coal ash storage at certain landfills, they were met with opposition from the powerful waste and energy sector lobby. ... The bills never made it out of committee.”
The Dirty Dozen report goes on to encourage Georgians to contact their representatives and encourage them to support the measures.
The full Dirty Dozen report is available at gawater.org.