U.S. judge sets back pulp mill's waste plan

Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Clean-water advocates say a federal judge has effectively killed Buckeye Florida's plans to pipe wastewater into the Gulf of Mexico.

The pulp mill, located near Perry, has for decades dumped its wastewater into the Fenholloway River. The mill proposed improving water quality by building a 15-mile pipeline that largely bypasses the river.

But a ruling Tuesday by Judge Emmett Sullivan of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., could scuttle those plans. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will now control the permit process and is unlikely to allow the pipeline, said Sierra Club attorney David Bookbinder.

"The river in a pipe is dead because Florida has no jurisdiction over it," he said.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection last year approved the pipeline permit. A spokeswoman said the department was awaiting word on the impact of the judge's ruling.

Buckeye spokeswoman Michelle Curtis said she would also wait for more information before commenting. But she said the pipeline is critical to the company's plans.

"There are no other combination of technologies that would bring the river to fishable and swimmable standards," she said.

The ruling likely won't mark the end of legal battles over the permit. Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida, said she'll continue to fight in the courts until Buckeye is required to clean the river.

"They'll either clean it up and obey the law or we'll shut them down," she said.

The company cooks pines in a chemical brew to produce cellulose, used in everything from diapers to sausage casings. The process also produces wastewater that is treated and then discharged into the river.

The wastewater darkens the river and has been linked to mutations in fish. Buckeye proposed spending $95 million to improve the wastewater treatment system and build the pipeline to the Gulf.

Company officials said the project would improve water quality enough to prevent harm to aquatic life in the Gulf. But clean-water advocates said the pipeline would have merely moved problems downstream.

The Sierra Club fought the EPA over the issue in federal court, arguing that the Clean Water Act forced the agency to take control of the permit.

Sullivan issued a ruling in March saying the act "imposes upon the EPA a mandatory duty to exercise jurisdiction." But Buckeye and state officials had disputed the meaning of the ruling.

Bookbinder said the judge on Tuesday told him to write an order requiring the agency to take control. The court will give the agency an opportunity to make changes and then issue an official order by the end of the month, he said, eliminating any lingering confusion over the issue

Young said she hopes the EPA will then end the dispute by killing the pipeline and requiring the river to be cleaned.

"I can't imagine that EPA wants to go to federal court against us again," she said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gvillesun.com.

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