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Elizabeth Bluemink

Federal and state environmental regulators are stepping up their scrutiny of a plan to send treated paper mill and sewage waste over land that drains into Perdido Bay.

The narrow bay, shared by Florida and southern Alabama, is a victim of industrial and urban pollution. For a decade, the state has allowed a bleach paper mill in central Escambia County, now owned by International Paper Co., to operate under an expired permit and violate water rules for a major tributary of the bay, Eleven Mile Creek.

International Paper and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection have a controversial $85 million remedy in mind. It involves a 10-mile pipeline and a natural wetlands-disposal system, a method that has never been used by a U.S. paper mill.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency will take the unusual step of evaluating the details of the proposed project before the state completes its own review, primarily because of the potential impact on Perdido Bay.

EPA officials plan to meet Friday with state officials and experts representing environmental activists.

“We need to make sure all important questions are carefully evaluated,” said James Giattina, director of the Atlanta-based region`s Water Management division. In the midst of this scrutiny, Florida`s top environmental official, David Struhs, is taking a high-level job at International Paper. He leaves the DEP next month.

But Mary Jean Yon, director of the Northwest District of the state environmental agency, said his departure won`t impact the review. “To me, it`s still all about getting a company into compliance,” said Yon, based in Pensacola. “Struhs will not be involved in this project.”

In the public-private partnership with the state environmental agency and the Escambia County Utilities Authority, International Paper has agreed to improve its wastewater treatment of pollutants and bypass its historic discharge point – upper Eleven Mile Creek, a bay tributary.

The mill plans to use the pipeline to carry wastewater to wetlands in central Escambia County. The wastewater would flow through the wetlands, adjacent to the Hurst Hammock community, during a period of three to four days, and discharge into Perdido Bay and lower Eleven Mile Creek, both polluted waterways.

The project`s public funding is made possible by the Utilities Authority – its role involves building a new sewer plant that would discharge a maximum of 5 million gallons per day into the wetlands or recycle it through the mill.

Chief benefits of the partnership, besides reducing the mill`s harm to Eleven Mile Creek, are the potential to recycle domestic wastewater and expand sewer service in central Escambia County, state and local officials say.

Opponents say the plan will harm Perdido Bay and adjacent land.

The state and federal reviews will cause additional delays for the proposed project, which the state environ-mental agency originally planned to release for public comment in October 2002.

But further scrutiny could uncover weak areas in the project, Yon said.

“It behooves us to make sure that we have the best plan,” she said.

Yon said the state agency will ensure that pollution limits for the mill`s discharge to the wetlands and the waterways are accurate.

EPA needs assurance that the wastewater is “of sufficient quality not to impact Perdido Bay,” Giattina said.

International Paper officials said they are OK with the delay.

“We are prepared and eager to show that the plan works,” said JoAnn McKeithan, the paper mill`s spokeswoman. “But there`s a benefit to the delay. It`s our intent that the community accepts and even embraces the project.”

What`s at stake
The Perdido Bay watershed once supported a thriving estuary, but pollution ran off its commercial shrimp and fisheries harvests decades ago. Numerous scientific studies show the bay`s problems are chronic – it suffers from too little oxygen and too many nutrients. Both choke aquatic life.

The extent to which International Paper`s mill in Cantonment – which opened in 1941 and was previously operated by St. Regis Paper Co. and Champion International Corp. – has caused those problems has been hotly contested by residents, regulatory officials and the mill`s scientists since the 1960s.

Mill scientists and regulators say the biggest issue for the bay is urban development, not industrial dumping.

But according to George Crozier, an expert on Gulf Coast estuaries, the bay also suffers from toxins that were dumped for decades, including chemicals that disrupt hormones in aquatic creatures.

The bay is a poor choice for any pollution discharge because it cannot flush itself adequately, he said.

Environmentalists say the mill`s pollution is unacceptable.

Jackie Lane, president of the Friends of Perdido Bay, has monitored water quality in the bay and Eleven Mile Creek. She sees a waterway that has become an industrial ditch. Her organization is collecting donations for an anticipated legal battle to block International Paper`s proposed pipeline.

The stakes are high, not just for the project partners, but for taxpayers.

International Paper and the Utilities Authority would use a loan from the state government to install the $33 million pipeline and implement the wetlands-disposal system.

International Paper would use $27 million in state-issued bonds, approved by Gov. Jeb Bush.

The Utilities Authority would borrow $25 million in public funds to construct a new sewer plant linked to the pipeline.

Plan offers mixed bag

According to experts, critics and other observers, the project is a mixed bag of good and bad:

International Paper and the Utilities Authority would have up to five years after the project is completed to prove to regulators that it has “no significant adverse impact” on the bay or the land, according to the permit application.

The project could restore, but also harm, portions of the native ecosystem, experts said.

There is little scientific data to show the long-term effect of paper mill effluent on natural wetlands. There are no specific guidelines or rules at the state or federal levels for paper mill discharges into wetlands. The project might violate federal Clean Water Act rules designed to prevent additional harm to damaged waterways such as Perdido Bay, environmentalists said.

Linda Young, with Clean Water Network, said the state agency so far has allowed the paper mill to get away with vague statements that it won`t harm the bay or the land.

“I`ve been backward and forward through this permit. Where is their proof? Where is their documentation? I do not see anything other than general, broad statements,” Young said. International Paper will treat its effluent aggressively so it won`t cause any harm after it leaves the mill`s wastewater treatment plant, responded McKeithan, the Cantonment mill`s spokeswoman.

Series of firsts
The project is built on a series of firsts:

It`s the first time the state has allowed an industry to send its waste through designated natural wetlands.

It`s the first time a pipeline/wetlands disposal method has been fully employed by a paper mill in the United States. And it`s the first time a U.S. paper mill has eliminated its direct discharge to a water body. The Cantonment paper mill has discharged to upper Eleven Mile Creek since it began operating more than 60 years ago.

Because of the firsts, and because the project would discharge into federally protected wetlands, the state is boxed in on taking an experimental approach to the project.

“It`s a unique kind of situation,” said Sally Cooey, the state environmental agency`s Northwest District spokeswoman.

Wetlands scientists weigh in
Bill Mitsch, one of the country`s top wetland experts who helped pioneer the use of wetlands for wastewater treatment, said the company`s discharge limits for certain pollutants – including nutrients – are “high” and would have some impact on the nutrient cycling and the food chain within the wetland ecosystem.

Mitsch of Ohio State University said he doubted the nutrients and conductivity in the effluent would prove toxic.

“It`s getting up to the edge, though,” he said.

Another wetlands scientist, Gerald Moshiri of the Gulf Breeze- based firm Wetlands Sciences Inc., said he isn`t surprised that other industries have not pursued similar plans.

“That exemption doesn`t come easily,” Moshiri explained. “Typically, you`d have to get the (wastewater) just about to drinking-water standards in order to get (state) approval.”

But Moshiri said state policy appears to wobble based on “whose ox is being gored and the squeaky wheel.” “There is a tremendous amount of public pressure to do something about the paper mill pollution,” he said.

Corps of engineers involved
The Army Corps of Engineers also is looking at the plan`s possible physical impact. The deadline to submit comments to the Corps is Feb. 13.

In response to Corps project engineer Ed Sarfert`s concerns about the amount of wetlands that would be inundated, the mill reduced the amount. However, 70 acres will remain permanently under 1 to 4 feet of water, he said.

“The Corps doesn`t regulate water pooling in an area. But there`s going to be an alteration of that landscape. Whether it`s good or bad, we don`t know yet,” he said.

In its review, the Corps found:
Approximately 70 percent of the effluent would discharge through two small lakes, Tee and Wicker, before entering Perdido Bay. The remaining 30 percent would drain through three channels into upper Eleven Mile Creek.

The Corps said it was “unaware of any threatened or endangered species on the project site.” This conflicted with information supplied to the Pensacola News Journal by the mill`s consultants, who said the state listed, federally threatened white- topped pitcher plant is common there.

Construction of the pipeline would permanently harm 25 acres of wetlands. But the company would agree to restore 69 acres of forested wetlands that have been harvested for timber in recent years. That acreage would be protected using a conservation easement.

The mill would plant water-tolerant trees throughout the wetlands site.

Battle may lie ahead
The project has many supporters. Some say it will be a positive step toward restoring the land and waters in the watershed.

But others are skeptical. For decades, they have watched Perdido Bay decline. They`ve dug out sediment from the mill`s discharge area and in the bay that is the consistency of “black Jell-O.” And they blame the mill. Hurst Hammock residents are worried about the possible impact of millions of gallons of wastewater poured over land near their private water wells. The Utilities Authority board agreed to extend water lines to the community in 2002 but voted to withhold funding in August 2003.

“We`ve played nicely with ECUA, and we expect them to do the same. But they appear to be reneging on their promise,” said resident Rich Schram.

International Paper officials acknowledge a likely challenge from residents around the bay, who are poised to block the project in court as soon as the state puts its stamp of approval on it.

At a Pensacola Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast in the fall, the mill`s environmental, health and safety manager, Michael Steltenkamp, blamed the criticism of the project on chronic mistrust of the mill.

He added,”I would welcome any technical challenge.”

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