Conservation Groups urge state to enforce Water Quality Standards, Stop Pollution of Altamaha River
For Immediate Release
April 1, 2015
Court Dismisses Clean Water Act Case Against Rayonier
Conservation Groups Urge State to Enforce Water Quality Standards, Stop Pollution of Altamaha River
Hutton Brown, Senior Attorney, GreenLaw, (404) 659-3122
Don Stack, Stack & Associates, (404) 525-9205
Nate Hunt, Senior Attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center, 434-872-3188
Jen Hilburn, Riverkeeper, Altamaha Riverkeeper, (912) 441-3908
Savannah, GA— A federal court has dismissed a Clean Water Act case against a South Georgia pulp mill. The suit, brought by the Altamaha Riverkeeper (“ARK”), charges that the Jesup-based Rayonier Performance Fibers (“Rayonier”) plant has been polluting the river with foul-smelling, chemical-laden effluent for decades.
The U.S. District Court, Southern Division, granted Rayonier’s Motion for Summary Judgment, finding that the company was in compliance with their water quality permit. The Riverkeeper asserted that Georgia’s narrative water quality standards requiring that all waters of the state be free from discharges producing turbidity, color or odor should have been incorporated into the permit. The Court held that these narrative standards were not enforceable as part of the permit, and Rayonier was thus entitled to summary judgement as a matter of contract law.
However, the Court asserted that its ruling did not suggest that Rayonier’s discharge did not have a harmful effect on the Altamaha River. “To the contrary,” the Court wrote, “those effects may be deleterious, and Rayonier’s discharges may, in fact, violate Georgia’s narrative water quality standards.”
The Court left open the door for the Riverkeeper to pursue state claims under negligence and nuisance laws. The Court further advised that the Riverkeeper could pursue a modification of the permit with the state to explicitly incorporate narrative water quality standards.
ARK was represented by GreenLaw, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), and Stack & Associates. Although the dismissal of the Clean Water Act case is admittedly a setback, Hutton Brown, Senior Attorney at GreenLaw, stated the Riverkeeper is determined to continue its efforts to clean up the Altamaha. “The ruling constitutes a basis for petitioning the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to incorporate Georgia’s water quality standards for color, odor, and turbidity into the permit.”
However, Don Stack cautioned that “the state does not have a strong track record of issuing tough permits that will effectively reduce the color and odor problems caused by Rayonier’s discharge.”
“While we are disappointed with the Court’s decision, it highlights the need for the state to fulfill its statutory obligations and ensure that Rayonier stops polluting the Altamaha River,” said Nate Hunt with SELC. “The court indicated that Rayonier's discharges may be in violation of Georgia’s water quality standards, but that it is up to EPD to enforce those standards—it is time for the state to finally do so.”
The EPD issued a draft NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) permit for Rayonier on February 18, 2015. A public hearing on the permit was held last night in Jesup, and comments on the permit are due today.
“We urge the state to finally do the right thing for the Altamaha and require tougher restrictions on Rayonier’s discharge to address longstanding problems with color, turbidity, and odor,” stated Jen Hilburn, Riverkeeper for ARK.
Altamaha Riverkeeperis a 501(c)(3) non-profit environmental organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the habitat, water quality, and flow of the Altamaha River, Georgia's largest river, from its headwaters in North Georgia to its terminus at the Atlantic Ocean near Darien. ARK represents more than 1,000 members who live, work, and recreate in the Oconee, Ocmulgee, and Ohoopee River Basins and their feeder streams that make up the 1,400 square mile Altamaha River Watershed.
GreenLaw is dedicated to preventing air and water pollution that endangers human health and degrades Georgia’s natural resources. Since 1992, GreenLaw has achieved these goals by providing free, high-quality legal and technical assistance to environmental organizations and community groups throughout Georgia. For more information, visit www.greenlaw.org and follow @greenlaw_GA on Twitter.
Stack & Associates, P.C., www.stackenvirolaw.com, founded in 1993 through the vision of Donald D.J. Stack, Esq. is a premier environmental law office serving citizens, municipalities and corporations throughout the entire Southeast region.
The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of nearly 60 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use. www.SouthernEnvironment.org