SAVANNAH, Georgia (From the Morning News) -- A ruling issued by Georgia Superior Court Judge Stephen Kelley has reversed a previous decision in state administrative court that required the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to issue a more stringent pollution permit for the Rayonier Advanced Materials mill near Jesup.
"The stated purpose of the Water Quality Control Act clearly contemplates that the different uses of the State's water resources may, at times and in certain waterbodies, conflict with one another," Kelley wrote in his order. "The law obligates EPD to manage this resource and interpret the law in a manner consistent with that purpose. Indeed, while the purpose of the WQCA is to protect the State water resources, they must be maximized and EPD must take a reasonable approach to regulation."
Bill Manzer, senior vice president of Manufacturing Operations at Rayonier Advanced Materials, said he was pleased with the decision.
"At the outset of this process, we expressed confidence in the permit developed by Georgia's Environmental Protection Division (EPD) and approved by the U.S. EPA," he said in an emailed statement. "That permit resulted from a years-long process that focused on the data, the science and the river. The decision of the Superior Court confirms our view of the facts and the law and affirms EPD's permit. Our Jesup plant will now begin operating under this new permit. Without question, the court's decision is good news for our plant and the hundreds of hardworking Georgians who work there."
The pulp mill, which employs about 750 people and produces more than half a million tons per year of cellulose products used in consumer goods ranging from cigarettes to cell phones, discharges about 50 to 60 million gallons of effluent into the river daily.
"The fish smell, the water smells," said Jen Hilburn, executive director and riverkeeper for the Altamaha Riverkeeper, which successfully challenged the 2015 EPD permit and was the respondent in the appeal. Riverkeepers from all over the country call her to learn about this pulp mill, she said.
"It's well known as the most noxious stink and stench and foulness," she said. Better technologies are available to reduce the pollution and Rayonier AM is installing them, but too slowly, say environmental groups.
"Personally, I am baffled by the Court's decision," David M. Paule, executive director of GreenLaw, said in a press release. GreenLaw, along with the Southern Environmental Law Center and Stack & Associates represented the riverkeeper group. "Similar plants around the world, many in third-world countries, are capable of discharging in a manner that does not so significantly discolor or impact the river. It is alarming that a company in Georgia would not be held to similar standards."
The Altamaha Riverkeeper intends to appeal.
"Fishermen, kayakers and recreationists of all sorts are aware of the awful stench and stain that is pumped into the river daily by Rayonier AM, and that it interferes with citizens' legitimate uses of the river," Hilburn said in a press release. "Without installing proper water treatment methods, we are concerned that Rayonier AM's profitability will continue to receive priority over the rights of Georgians."