By Virginia Chamlee
During a Jacksonville city council meeting Monday, state Rep. Lake Ray, R-Jacksonville, spoke out against a resolution that would delay the construction of a four-mile waste pipeline from Georgia-Pacific’s Palatka mill to the St. Johns River. Ray, who also acts as the executive director of a business association that represents Georgia-Pacific, said a decision to delay the pipeline could be detrimental to securing Gov. Rick Scott’s help with other Jacksonville needs.
The St. Johns River has been inundated with algal blooms and fish kills for years, and any added effluent (especially effluent potentially containing dioxins) could lead to even worse damage. A resolution introduced by Jacksonville City Councilmen Jim Love simply calls for an independent analysis of the source of Georgia-Pacific’s pollution before the company can begin pumping their effluent through a pipeline into the St. Johns.
The vice president of operations for Georgia-Pacific’s Palatka mill was on hand to defend the pipeline during Monday’s meeting of the committee on transportation, energy and utilities.
Georgia-Pacific is the second largest point source polluter of the St. Johns River which, at 310 miles long, is Florida’s longest river. The company is owned by Koch Industries, which is run by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, both of whom are ardently opposed to government regulation.
“I’d like to start out in 1993 when we submitted — Georgia-Pacific submitted an application for a pipeline and also for a permit that would allow us to comply with our environmental requirements,” said Georgia-Pacific’s Gary Frost. “And quite frankly, I do need to be very frank that Georgia-Pacific and Koch is a company that takes that requirement very seriously. We absolutely believe in environmental excellence. In everything we do, we either meet or exceed our requirements and that’s an absolute must. We will not be in business; we will not operate facilities that don’t do that.”
After submitting that application, an administrative law judge approved the Georgia-Pacific request in 2001 — allowing for the construction and operation of a four-mile pipeline from Putnam County’s Rice Creek into the much-larger St. Johns River.
Though Georgia-Pacific reps are quick to defend their record of environmental excellence, critics and many scientists disagree.
An ex-state Department of Environmental Protection scientist has alleged that the company’s effluent contains harmful dioxins, which can potentially cause cancer in both humans and animals. Frost says that all of his company’s tests have shown “no detect on dioxin.”
After touting his company’s improvements, Frost went on to say that the failure to move forward with the pipeline could jeopardize future job growth in Florida.
“This is important, not only to Georgia-Pacific but also to other industries that are looking to come into Putnam County and Northeast Florida that would be in a situation where they’d say, ‘Well you enter into a commitment with the state and federal governments and the rules change midstream,’” said Frost. “We’ve done, above and beyond, what we were required to do over and over again and then there’s resolutions that potentially could change the game. That’s very difficult for a business to proceed with.”
St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon, who has acted as a river watchdog for nine years, also spoke to council members during the meeting.
“The St. Johns River is this community’s greatest natural resource,” Armingeon said. “And I can assure you there are people in Putnam County who have the same concerns that I’ve voiced to you today. We are not against the mill — we are for the river. And if we have issues that cannot be resolved through simple questions and answers, than something is wrong. Mr. Frost is correct: They can begin to build the pipeline. The issue that we are addressing now is: Will they be able to put anything in that pipeline?”
Armingeon also made mention of two other Northeast Florida businesses — the Busch plant and NAS Jax — that have overhauled their wastewater treatment and use recycled waters. “Those are the kinds of processes that we all need to look at,” said Armingeon.
City Councilman Richard Clark then invited state Rep. Ray to address the council. Ray, who has been vocal about the resolution before (.pdf), took it a step forward in yesterday’s meeting — insinuating that the governor himself might not help with job creation in the area should the resolution pass.
“The governor already understands that the agreement has been struck,” Ray said. “So, by taking one position, it looks like you’re against the river. By taking another position, it looks like you’re against something that doesn’t exist. … Why would the governor want to help with JaxPort? Why would the governor want to help with Mile Point? Why would the governor want to help with deepening? Because these are the same type of issues that will have to be addressed.”
“Ray basically said that, by passing this resolution, Jacksonville will be targeted by the governor.”“Ray basically said that, by passing this resolution, Jacksonville will be targeted by the governor,” says Armingeon, when called for comment. “I do not think that Gov. Rick Scott is keeping a book of naughty and nice and putting check marks next to those who ask for questions to be answered.”
In addition to serving as a state lawmaker, Ray also acts as executive director of the the First Coast Manufacturers Association, a group with close ties to Georgia-Pacific. Georgia-Pacific’s Frost sits on the Manufacturers Association board of directors.
Ray also sits on the Jacksonville Waterways Commission, but has offered to step down if his fellow members take issue with what might be seen as a conflict of interest.
Ray tells The Florida Independent that he is by no means “against the river” and isn’t necessarily supportive of the Georgia-Pacific pipeline; he is just concerned with “providing certainty in the political process.”
“It’s an existing struggle between state, federal and local government,” says Ray. “This resolution will introduce uncertainty into the process. … A judge said, ‘You’re going to build a pipeline.’ Asking the local government to step in and block that permit could have legal consequences and it’s out of their purview.”
The representative also reiterated Frost’s stance that going forward with the permit would make Jacksonville a less desirable place to open a business. “We spend millions trying to attract companies for economic development,” he says. “Do you really think that someone that might have to go through a similar process would want to bring their business here?”
As for environmental impacts, Ray says he is “confident and comfortable” with the state Department of Environmental Protection, and doesn’t believe that Georgia-Pacific’s effluent contains harmful levels of dioxins: “This resolution will have zero impact on the environment and will only risk [Jacksonville's] relationship with the governor.”
“Ray claims he’s in Tallahassee and knows the mood over there,” says Armingeon. “That kind of demagoguery has influence on people. How does one even know who he is speaking for — his constituents or his employer?”
Councilmen Clark, Don Redman and Johnny Gaffney all voted against the resolution, leading to a tie vote. The next committee meeting to address the resolution will be held in two weeks.