Citizens testify on mill’s impact on Altamaha

Witnesses differed last week as to how great an impact the Rayonier Advanced Materials mill at Jesup has on the Altamaha River. 
Several members of the Wayne County community testified in Blackshear on Thursday and Friday in the second part of a four-part hearing on the Altamaha Riverkeeper’s suit against the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
Altamaha Riverkeeper, with the help of GreenLaw, Stack & Associates, and the Southern Environmental Law Center, is taking the EPD to court over a permit issued last year to Rayonier Advanced Materials. The permit governs the 60 million gallons of effluent per day discharged from Rayonier Advance Material’s Jesup mill into the Altamaha River.
According to a press release from GreenLaw, the permit issued by the EPD “fails to meet Clean Water Act requirements regarding water quality standards on odor, color and turbidity.” 
Yet according to Russell Schweiss, a spokesman for Rayonier Advanced Materials, since 2008 the company has reduced the color in the water by 60 percent and invested $70 million in pollution controls. 
Lawyers for both sides of the case called on several citizens from Wayne and surrounding counties to provide testimony before the court.   
Donnie Jones was one Jesup resident called to testify by Altamaha Riverkeeper. He regularly fishes about 15 minutes downstream of the mill’s outfall and claims that many of the fish he catches are tainted by Rayonier’s discharge. 
“When you pull them out of the water, they have that odor. You can smell them immediately,” he testified.  
Jones said that on each outing he catches nearly a dozen fish that have to be thrown back because of their smell. 
Onnie Yeomans of Gardi testified as well, saying that he made the mistake of eating one of the “tainted” fish. 
“When I put it my mouth, I almost gagged,” he said. “I will not eat fish from below the mill.” 
Yeomans added that he was an employee of Rayonier for 37 years. 
“We need Rayonier,” he said. “I would just like to see the river cleaned up.”
Phillip Jordan from Monticello also testified on behalf of Altamaha Riverkeeper. He regularly spends days or weeks at a time paddling down the Altamaha River in his kayak and camping on its banks and sandbars. He purifies river water for drinking and cooking but said he refuses to drink the water downstream from Rayonier, purified or not. 
While the witnesses that Altamaha Riverkeeper called painted a picture of an Altamaha River that is clogged with pollution, the EPD and Rayonier called witnesses who expressed a vastly different point of view. 
Randy Aspinwall, a corporal with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, was one witness for the EPD. He is responsible for 88 miles of the Altamaha River and patrols the area near the Jesup mill on a weekly basis. 
“The discharge coming from the pipe is no longer the coffee color it used to be,” Aspinwall said, describing the color of the effluent from Rayonier’s outflow pipes. He also mentioned that he has never caught a fish with odor or taste connected with the Jesup mill. 
Bruce Foisy, a district manager for Coastal Environmental Protection for the DNR, was another of the EPD’s witnesses. Foisy testified that he is responsible for compliance of several thousand EPD-permitted facilities, including Rayonier’s Jesup mill.
Foisy said that in 18 years, his office has received only 11 complaints about the mill, five of which were filed by the same person. 
Other DNR employees testified as well, including fisheries regional supervisor Bert Deener and fisheries biologist Don Harrison. 
Deener testified that he often fishes for mullet on the sandbar across from Rayonier’s second outfall pipe. He added that “outfall one is a prime catfish spot.”
Harrison also mentioned that the areas between Rayonier’s two outfall pipes are a very popular area for fishing and that there is no discernible difference in fish populations above and below the mill’s discharge point. 
Jesup City Manager Mike Deal was another of the EPD’s witnesses. Deal testified that he’s caught thousands of fish in the Altamaha, and “99 percent” of the fish were caught below the discharge point. 
“All fish smell bad,” he said. “But I haven’t caught one that smells like the mill.” 
The third part of the hearing began Monday in Atlanta and will wrap up Thursday. 
Add to Second Slider: 

The Press-Sentinel

Mailing Address: 
252 W. Walnut St.
Jesup, Georgia 31545
Phone: 912-427-3757
Fax: 912-427-4092