Wednesday morning, the state Board of Natural Resources will gather at the Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa in Young Harris to vote on a number of matters and formally appoint Doug Haymans as the new Coastal Resources Division director. The board will also consider a proposal to change Georgia’s water quality rule, which environmental advocates say grew directly out of the controversy around Rayonier’s liquid discharge from its Jesup mill into the Altamaha River.
Essentially, if rule amendments go the distance, one word, “unreasonably,” would be added to the rule, while the word “designated” would replace the word “legitimate.” As such, the modified rule would be, “All waters shall be free from material related to municipal, industrial or other discharges which produce turbidity, color, odor, or other objectionable conditions which unreasonably interfere with the designated use of the water body.”
Without a literal definition in law for what is unreasonable, the change objectively creates a subjective standard, environmental advocates say.
“When you’re losing, change the rules,” said Jen Hilburn, the Altamaha Riverkeeper. “One might expect our (state) Environmental Protection Division to change the definition of the rules to protect the environment and our communities’ access to our natural resources, but you would be wrong. Alas, EPD is asking the DNR board to change the language of the law to protect their (figurative) client, Rayonier Advanced Materials.”
Hilburn said she believed the DNR board members were astute enough to not move forward on the proposal.
Gordon Rogers, the Flint Riverkeeper, emailed The News exchanges from testimony held in the Rayonier lawsuit. In it, Audra Dickson, manager of the EPD’s Industrial Permitting Unit, described the difference between designated and legitimate uses.
“So, legitimate water use — so the designated use is what Georgia declares is what the waterway should be used for, right?” Dickson said. “In this case, it’s fishing, as you mentioned, and then secondary contact. A legitimate use would be recreation, boating, fishing, swimming. That would be legitimate use of those waterways.”
Two DNR staffers and an environmental engineer called by Rayonier all accepted this general definition, according to the transcript. Rogers said it is a rule change for the whole state to provide a regulatory fix for one company at one location.
“Although seemingly benign, the effect is actually pernicious,” Rogers said. “Changing ‘legitimate’ to ‘designated’ would reduce the activities that get protected. For example, the Altamaha is designated as ‘fishing,’ so swimming, boating, etcetera, would no longer be protected.”
For its part, the EPD sees this as little more than providing additional specification to the rule.
“EPD believes that this change is a clarification only and does not change the stringency of the narrative standards that are being amended,” EPD Director Richard Dunn wrote in a Nov. 21 memo to the DNR board, which is included in their meeting materials for Wednesday.
According to the EPD’s synopsis, it views the current rule as providing an opening to subjective interpretation, and that adding in the word “unreasonably” actually provides more guidance as to the rule’s historical implementation.
In its statement of rationale, EPD argues, “EPD believes that the current rule language could be interpreted to prohibit interference with any water use at any time, thus leading to an interpretation that if one person finds an aesthetic condition on the water objectionable at any time, then the narrative water quality standard is not being met.”
A frequent accusation lodged against Rayonier is that the discharge from its plant in Jesup discolors the Altamaha and imbues the river and creatures pulled from it with a particularly malodorous scent.
EPD also states the word “unreasonably” inserts a “reasonableness standard.” The EPD does not set out the specifics of that standard, though it points to the use of the word “reasonable” in the Georgia Water Quality Act. EPD further notes there is no definition in state law for “legitimate uses,” regardless of the testimony in the Rayonier lawsuit that shows a common understanding of what “legitimate uses” are, and how they are different from “designated uses.”
Rayonier officials have long maintained the company is not doing anything wrong, is following state and federal regulations, and the discharge is not harming the Altamaha. Speaking to the Rotary Club of Brunswick in 2013, Bill Manzer — Rayonier’s senior vice president of manufacturing operations — said the chemical discharged into the river, lignin, occurs naturally when trees decompose.
“We operate within all our permits,” Manzer said at the time. “There’s no proof of any harm.”
If the DNR board votes to proceed on the rule changes, those modifications would then be subject to a public comment period.