By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
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The point is moot as long as Donohue stays within the limits set in its discharge permit, because those limits are based on the assumption that the water body can assimilate a certain amount of various pollutants without damage to the ecosystem. On the other hand, the reason Donohue has been pushing to change the state standards for Rayburn is because the mill hasn't been meeting the limits for aluminum and biological oxygen demand (or BOD, any material that depletes oxygen levels). Not that the company has been doing anything illegal -- the mill has been operating on a variance to its permit since 1994.
The variance gives Donohue the right to dump unlimited amounts of aluminum into Paper Mill Creek instead of the 119 pounds per day in the permit; the company's own reports show the mill has discharged an average of about 550 pounds per day since January 1998. Similarly, the permit allows daily discharges of 2,349 pounds of oxygen-depleting materials during the cooler half of the year and only 626 pounds during the hotter months, when the oxygen levels in the lake are naturally depleted. The variance allows Donohue to put 2,900 pounds of oxygen-depleting materials into Rayburn year-round, and the company has averaged more than 2,000 pounds a day the past two years.
This assumes Donohue's reports are accurate, since the TNRCC relies almost exclusively on company data for enforcement purposes. That may not be a good idea, however, as the most recent state inspection conducted at the mill indicates. Of the 11 inspection categories in the November examination, Donohue received unsatisfactory ratings in five, including lab conditions and the storage and handling of chemicals. The company responded to the notice of violations within the required 14 days, the inspection report says, "but failed to adequately address all of the violations."
Regardless, when the overhaul is completed, the mill will discharge about half its current amount of oxygen-depleting materials and will reduce other pollutants as well. But the aluminum discharge will remain the same, and Donohue still needs the standards change to be in compliance for oxygen-depleting materials. Several consultants back the company's claim that it simply can't lower its discharge of those materials any further and stay in business.
The proposal to change the standards actually predates Donohue's ownership of the mill, which it bought from Champion International Corp. in 1997. Champion was granted the variances on the promise of conducting studies that would show the lake could in fact handle higher levels of both pollutants and not suffer for it. Those studies were in fact conducted -- by engineering firms paid by Champion -- one for aluminum and one for dissolved oxygen. Both came out the way Champion hoped. The studies remain the basis for the proposed changes, which the TNRCC has now recommended, and it's the studies that Donohue is referring to when company officials speak of "sound science."
They speak of it often. "I think it's absolutely imperative that we base any decisions on sound science," mill spokeswoman Debbie Johnston stated at a March meeting in Lufkin to discuss the draft of the TNRCC list of polluted water bodies. "We believe that decisions of this magnitude should be made on facts and science -- not on emotional rhetoric with no basis," reads a company fact sheet. "Please, consider the factsnot fiction," implores a full-page Donohue ad in the Lufkin Daily News.
Despite this posture, Donohue has played fast and loose with the facts when it comes to its own statements (see "Do As I Say" page 24). And not every scientist who has looked at the studies agrees that they're entirely sound. In fact, it appears that the debate among scientists at several state and federal agencies has been contentious. The TNRCC may have given its official imprimatur, but even within that agency there is no consensus on the facts. In an internal memo written shortly after the dissolved oxygen study was released, TNRCC field investigator Jo English stated flatly that the conclusions within it weren't justified -- using the study's own data. "The request for an exemption to the dissolved oxygen standard should be denied," English wrote. "The documentation does not support their conclusion that a downgrade is warranted."
Asked to comment on the various criticisms of the studies voiced by English and others, the agency did not have much to offer. "I'm a little skittish about commenting in detail on the memos," says Jim Davenport, who heads the water quality standards team. Still, he says, it would not be unusual to have different interpretations of the findings. "We recognize that in this study, like any other, there's some variability in the results," Davenport says.
English declined to be interviewed but did pass a message to the Press through an agency spokesman. "I stand by the memo," she said, "but I don't want to talk about it anymore."
Until recently, the position of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on Rayburn had been consistently clear. Like Jo English, at least one department scientist disagreed with Donohue that the facts speak for themselves. In a 1996 letter to the TNRCC, Andrew Labay of the department's water quality branch criticized the Champion study on several counts, concluding that "current waste water treatment practices are not protective of water quality in [Rayburn]."