Reeling

Bass kills and lesions on fish worry Sam Rayburn anglers. So does the state's plan to lower the lake's pollution standards.

In the wake of the fish kills and the Epistylus outbreak, the TPWD put together a task force to investigate the causes. According to a department press release, "the task force will initiate a comprehensive assessment of potential water quality impairment at Sam Rayburn." In addition, the release promised, "regular progress reports will be made available to all interested parties."

That was ten months ago. The task force recently presented a report to McKinney to help him craft the agency's comments, but that was the group's first communication since its formation. "The regular reports were not received," says Jack Ralph, who directs the TPWD's inland spills and kills program and oversaw the task force. As for the group's mission as described in the press release, Ralph laughs. "That's a hoot," he says. "There's no way that we've got the staff to complete that task."


Declaring war: Angler Ed Parten has 300,000 troops at the ready.
Deron Neblett
Declaring war: Angler Ed Parten has 300,000 troops at the ready.

Walt West eases his 1996 Skeeter 202 bass boat into a cove south of the 147 bridge, dips a rod into the water and pulls it out. He repeats the action several times until he lands a sickly-looking green strand. "Hydrilla," he says. "It's in bad shape." West navigates to several points farther south, each time casting for hydrilla. The farther south he goes, away from the paper mill, the fresher and more abundant the plant appears.

A retired NASA engineer and bass enthusiast, West has been fishing since he was 11, though he modestly declares that "in a few years, I'll learn something about it." He and his wife bought a place on Sam Rayburn in 1988 and eventually moved there permanently. When he first arrived, he says, "I didn't know dissolved oxygen from doodley-squat."

But like many anglers, West became alarmed when the fishing dropped off dramatically after the 1998 fish kill. "It was just atrocious," he says. "I decided, something bad wrong's here."

West became something of an information vacuum, collecting documents from state agencies, anecdotes from fishing organizations, tournament results and whatever else he could find. His dining room table became the permanent repository for his collection. Nothing he found dissuaded him from his feeling that Rayburn was in trouble, and he found sympathetic ears in Ed Parten and other influential bass fishermen. Parten pitched the case to environmental organizations, which were already looking skeptically at the state's standards revisions. "We got the attention of the enviros," says Parten, who owns a Houston construction company and hardly comes off as a prototypical tree hugger. "All of a sudden, we realized how many things we had in common."

Parten, Dave Stewart and others put together a coalition of fishermen and environmental and health groups they call SMART (Sensible Management of Aquatic Resources Team). With a combined membership of more than 300,000, the organization has potential clout, the full weight of which Parten says will be brought to bear in the fight over Rayburn. "We're ready to play hardball," he says. "We didn't get into this thing to let somebody shit on us."

Don't expect Donohue and its allies to roll over, however. The company has far more resources at its disposal to wage a battle, as evidenced by the four busloads of influential Lufkinites that Donohue shipped to the public comment hearing in Austin. And with $230 million at stake, the company isn't likely to accept defeat. "It's gonna get ugly," says EPA toxicologist Phillip Jennings, who is involved with the agency's review of the standards changes.

Everyone involved believes the struggle will be a protracted one. Even if the TNRCC approves the changes, it'll have to get a federal okay. "This is far from over," says Jennings, who has a personal as well as professional interest: His grandfather worked at the mill, and he has fished Rayburn with his son. "EPA has to tell the state if the [rationale for the changes] is acceptable. We're going to look at it very carefully, because we are concerned."

And no matter which way the regulatory winds blow, the case is likely to move to a different venue in the end. "There's no doubt in my mind it'll end up in court," says Jack Yates, who directs the Texas Association of Bass Clubs and is on record against the changes.

Yates is conflicted about how to resolve the mess, though he's adamant about protecting Rayburn. His stand has cost him lifelong friendships. Members of his family have worked at the mill, and he knows how important it is to the people of Lufkin. "I'll be the first to tell you, that paper mill has to stay there," he says. "Killing that paper mill is not an option, but we need clean water."

Had the TNRCC, the mill, the anglers and anyone else with a stake in Rayburn worked together on a solution, Yates believes, a compromise might have been reached. That should have happened long ago, however, and at this point it may be too late. "There's got to be an answer out there that both sides can live with," he says. "But they've waited so long, they probably don't have time."

If that's true, Yates laments, both sides are gonna lose. "There's no winning to this."

E-mail Bob Burtman at bob.burtman@houstonpress.com.

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