By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
In a December 10 letter responding to concerns about one of the Rayburn fish kills, TNRCC executive director Jess Saitas noted the complexity of the issue. "The TNRCC and other state resource agencies have investigated possible causes of this fish kill; however, a single cause for the kill has not been identified," Saitas wrote. "The water temperature at the time was unusually hot, and this certainly stressed the fish, although other factors contributed to the kill." A June 7, 1999, TPWD press release was a bit more specific: "Epistylus is most often associated with conditions of poor water quality."
Given Rayburn's status as a repeat standards offender, it would be hard to dismiss poor water quality as a possible perpetrator. The TNRCC's latest list of polluted water bodies, known as the 303(d) list, has yet to be finalized. However, it indicates that Rayburn has several significant problems: high concentrations of aluminum, low dissolved oxygen levels, mercury in fish tissue, and areas that are too acidic or too alkaline. Previously, Rayburn has been listed for lead and fecal coliform bacteria in violation of the state standard.
Rayburn also appears prominently on a TNRCC "concerns" list, which carries less regulatory weight than the state's formal list of polluted waterways. The concerns include excessive levels of oil and grease, manganese and arsenic in the sediments. Other troubling water quality data has also been collected, but not in sufficient amounts to warrant inclusion on a list.
It's these lists that anglers and environmentalists cite when arguing the point that Rayburn has a problem beyond the drought. Added together or individually, says Texas Sierra Club director Ken Cramer, the contaminants could be causing harm to the bass and other aquatic life in Rayburn. "The [problems] are caused by stress on the fish, and pollution causes stress," Cramer says, "so it's not a great leap of faith."
Proving it may not be feasible, as those who argue that Rayburn is in great shape readily point out. But disproving it is equally impossible, which means people like Ann Thomasson-Wilson have to rely on common sense and experience for direction. Those, she says, have led her to an inescapable conclusion: "We've got to stop the pollution."
The Donohue Industries paper mill dominates the landscape east of Lufkin much as it has dominated the social and economic picture in the community since it opened in 1940. Trucks and forklifts wind through its jumble of buildings and stacks; guards at each gate check credentials. The Canadian-based corporation has begun an aggressive $230 million modernization of the mill that will improve its effluent and, as the company is quick to point out, pump an infusion of cash into the always struggling East Texas economy.
Inside an administration building, company spokesman Seth Kursman is eager to explain Donohue's position on Sam Rayburn. The company is not seeking a downgrade of the water quality standard, he says (though the TNRCC and the TPWD label it just that). Rather, Donohue wants the TNRCC to give Rayburn the designation that the section of the lake near the mill should have had in the first place. In addition, Kursman wants to make it perfectly clear that the paper mill had nothing to do with any of Rayburn's misfortunes, including the big 1998 fish kill. "No one from a regulatory standpoint has ever pointed a finger at this operation [or said] that this mill contributed in any way, shape or form to that incident," Kursman says.
Kursman chooses his words carefully, because he knows that many people don't share those opinions, and because he says he knows the "sensationalistic bent" of the Houston Press.
Exactly where all the contaminants identified by the TNRCC in Rayburn came from is open to debate, since a variety of industrial and natural by-products manage to find their way into the reservoir. Some of the fecal coliform came from sewage treatment plants that discharge their effluent into the bayous that feed Rayburn. Some came from poultry farms farther upstream and some from critters that inhabit the woods surrounding the lake. Similarly, a fraction of the metals found in Rayburn occur naturally in the waters of East Texas; another slice of the metals pie may come from storm-water runoff.
But of the pollutants that have been identified as among the most troublesome in Rayburn, the largest single source is clear: Donohue. The mill discharges more than one million pounds of pollutants annually, more than double that of any other facility in Angelina County. In the past two years alone, Donohue has dumped about 400,000 pounds of aluminum, a by-product of the milling process, into Paper Mill Creek, which flows into the Angelina River and then connects with the northwestern arm of Rayburn. In that same period Donohue has been depositing an average of more than a ton of oxygen-depleting material into the creek every day. And according to EPA figures, tons of manganese have flowed annually into Paper Mill Creek courtesy of Donohue.
Donohue chief engineer Charles Hughes won't speculate whether the mill's discharges have contributed to the high levels of manganese and aluminum and low levels of dissolved oxygen found in its neck of the lake. He says it "would take a lot of scientific study to really nail down" the impairments on Rayburn.