photo: Nye Beach in Newport, OR
Newport residents petition DEQ about discharge from Georgia-Pacific plant
NEWPORT -- Three years after coastal residents took their worries to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality about the wastewater Georgia-Pacific pumps into the ocean, the agency soon might be ready to take action.
DEQ is focusing this summer on a petition filed in October 2006 asking it to reconsider the permit that allows the Toledo mill to discharge 11 million gallons of effluent daily.
"Things will probably start coming out this summer, and we're going to try to resolve the reconsideration by the fall," said Steve Schnurbusch, DEQ water quality compliance inspector and permit writer.
The petition is unusual, one of about five the agency has seen in five years, Schnurbusch said.
"It doesn't happen too often," he said. "We don't even get one a year, and this is the first time it happened with Georgia-Pacific."
For 50 years, the pulp and paper mill in Toledo has piped the wastewater generated from creating paper products into the ocean about 3,850 feet off of Nye Beach.
In 2005 when DEQ hosted public hearings on renewing the permit, some nearby residents lobbied hard to get permit standards tightened and to strengthen monitoring of the effluent. In July 2006, DEQ renewed the permit without change.
Three months later, several groups filed the petition for reconsideration and DEQ agreed.
Those behind the petition fear the effluent could harm people who surf, swim and boat on the ocean, and that it could be contributing to the dead zones -- areas so low in oxygen that marine life suffocates -- close by.
"As far as anyone understands, the discharge is not causing the dead zone," said Pete Stauffer, Oregon policy coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for better water quality, beach access and ocean health. "The concern is that in an area where you already have low oxygen, to be discharging wastewater that is also low in oxygen can compound the stress already on the environment."
This spring, after a January meeting with DEQ, Surfrider offered its own recommendations. They include requiring Georgia-Pacific to monitor water, sediments and organisms adjacent to the outfall pipe to ensure it is in compliance with the Clean Water Act, to assess how recreational uses in the area might be affected and to verify that the discharge in the mixing zone -- the area of ocean encompassing the pipe where water does not have to meet clean water standards -- is not going beyond the boundaries of the mixing zone.
"In the broadest sense, we want to see a permit that is consistent with state and federal law that protects water quality," Stauffer said.
The foundation is particularly concerned about heavy metals, such as lead; hydrocarbons, which are typically associated with the burning of garbage and resins; and other byproducts from the pulping process.
"The current permit relies on the ocean water to dilute the low-oxygen wastewater to healthy oxygen levels," Stauffer said. "That's why DEQ needs to make sure that seasonal hypoxia -- dead zones -- is incorporated into analyses that establish discharge limits."
Stauffer said his group is not claiming the mill is causing the dead zone, but wants to make sure that its wastewater is not making the problem worse.
Schnurbusch said the compounds released in the discharge tend to be low in toxicity and many of the chemicals used are recycled at the mill.
"People have this impression that a pulp mill is going to be discharging toxics at high levels and that is going to kill off the aquatic community," he said. "We are just not seeing that."
Nonetheless, a plume of dark water around the outfall pipe sometimes visible from the air and the bluffs near Nye Beach is doing little to reassure locals that the discharge is harmless.
"It's not toxic," said Franz Cosenza, technical manager of the mill. Rather, the discoloration is a result of the mill's conscientious water use and the presence of lignin, a natural polymer found in wood, he said.
"This Georgia-Pacific mill is a very water-efficient user," Cosenza said. "As a result, our volume of water relative to the tons produced of paper is very low. Because of the low volume and the presence of lignin, it's just less dilution for that lignin and gives it the darker appearance."
Cosenza said company officials won't know what effectchanges to the permit -- if there are any -- might have on the mill until they know what those changes might be.
"We've been looking at it to understand what the petition is all about," he said. "We are obviously in compliance with the permit as it is now."
Lori Tobias: 541-265-9394; firstname.lastname@example.org