FL sacrificed a river to get paper mill jobs. The deal really stunk.

January 7, 2021 7:00 am

The Fenholloway River has been turned into a sewer to benefit a paper company and the jobs it brought to Taylor County. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

While my older son was going to college in Tallahassee, my wife and I and our younger son would routinely drive up to visit him via U.S. 19. It was a lovely trip on a quiet highway that cut through the small towns and piney woods of North Florida — except for one bad spot.

We always had to make sure to have our windows rolled up when we approached the outskirts of Perry, about an hour south of the state capital. We wanted to avoid the smell as we crossed the bridge over the Fenholloway River. How bad is it? So bad that I’ve heard local residents joke that in the Fenholloway, “H2O means two parts horrible and one part odor.”

The Fenholloway has stunk like that for decades. Why? Because for decades it’s served as a glorified sewer for polluted waste from the Perry paper mill. What was once a tea-colored river full of redfish became a nasty cesspool where a scientist once documented mutated fish switching genders.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw a front-page story in the Perry newspaper last week that said the Fenholloway is about to get much, much better.

The paper mill, now owned by a company called Georgia-Pacific, had just finished building a 15.3-mile pipeline that would reroute all that waste out past the river and instead dump it into the river’s mouth at the Gulf of Mexico, said the story, which carried no reporter’s byline.

“Capping a monumental environmental improvement process that began 25 years ago, the Fenholloway Water Quality Project is now ‘complete, successful, and operational,’ according to Georgia-Pacific officials,” the Perry News-Herald reported in its Friday edition.

I read the rest of the story, then read it again. Not one single person quoted in the story said anything bad about this big pipeline project or even cautioned that it might not work. Coincidentally, not one single person quoted in the story worked for any company other than Georgia-Pacific. It was basically a front-page press release.

There were no quotes from the local residents who once sued the mill for contaminating their water wells, no quotes from any anglers upset about the pipeline’s potential impact on the fishing at the mouth of the river, and not a word from the various scientists who through the years have found lots of Very Bad Things caused by the paper mill waste.

And absolutely no mention whatsoever of the mill’s most persistent critic, rancher and Mrs. Claus lookalike Joy Towles Ezell, 73.

Trading clean water for full employment

Joy Towles Ezell

Ezell grew up along the Fenholloway — the one from before the mill was built. She remembers when you could wade in the river, swim in it, catch fish in it that you could eat and not worry about its effect on your health. You could find more than a dozen springs along its length, which ran from the inland San Pedro Bay down to the Gulf, she told me when I called her this week.

But in 1947 — the year she was born — Taylor County officials persuaded the Florida Legislature to designate the Fenholloway as the state’s only “industrial” river. They wanted to attract a polluting industry and were willing to trade a pristine waterway for jobs. In Ezell’s view, they made a deal with the devil.

The law said, in part, that any industrial operation in Taylor County “shall have and is hereby granted the right and is hereby empowered to discharge and deposit sewage, industrial and chemical wastes and effluents, or any of them, into the waters of the Fenholloway River, and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico into which said river flows.”

Four years later, Procter & Gamble built the paper mill and began dumping millions of gallons of waste into the river every day. Not long afterward, the fish kills began, Ezell said. Her grandfather, who had opposed the river’s “industrial” designation, was incensed.

“I heard all my life about how ‘them sorry Yankees’ came down here and ruined our water,’” she told me.

The mill chews up pine trees to create pulp that’s used in making such things as disposable diapers, tires, rayon clothing, and those baby wipes that you’re not supposed to flush down the toilet. Speaking of flushing things, the manufacturing process produced some 50 million gallons of waste every day that needed to go somewhere — so they flushed it into the Fenholloway. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

The nutrients in the pollution spurred algae blooms and wiped out much of the river’s fish population by reducing dissolved oxygen. The mill also used chlorine to bleach the pulp, which produced dioxins, which have been found to cause cancer in humans. The company also drained San Pedro Bay to make room to plant more pine trees, which cut the flow of clean water into the river.

But the mill kept its bargain with Taylor County, providing well-paying jobs for hundreds of people and supporting other area businesses as well. To a lot of people, destroying a river in exchange for employment still seemed like a good bargain.

The initial reports of drinking water problems began cropping up about a decade after the plant opened. Then, in 1989, local residents began showing up at the health department complaining that when they turned on their faucets, out poured foul-smelling water the color of coffee.

The Fenholloway River. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

For two years, scientists working for the state drilled test wells around Perry. They discovered that during droughts, when the river’s flow slowed to a trickle, the waste the company was dumping seeped into the aquifer instead of flowing to the gulf. The pollution then came back up in people’s drinking wells. State officials called it the most widespread groundwater pollution ever documented in a state notorious for such abuses of nature.

In 1990, state officials banned fishing in the river because of the dioxins from the mill waste. Meanwhile, past the river’s mouth, the waste wiped out some 10 square miles of seagrass beds, which serve as a nursery for fish, oysters, and other marine life, as well as helping to filter out impurities in the water. At the mill site itself, Ezell said, sinkholes began opening up, caused by the mill’s pumping of water from below ground, as the springs along the river dried up.

This is the point in the story where I picture Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian in “The Empire Strikes Back” muttering, “This deal is getting worse all the time!”

The most disturbing discovery came from a scientist named Stephen Bortone. He found that female mosquitofish, one of the few species still able to swim in the Fenholloway, had begun to display male characteristics. The changes occurred because the waste contained chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system. If those chemicals did that to fish, what were they doing to humans?

In the early 1990s, a feisty Tallahassee Democrat reporter named Julie Hauserman (who in 2018 became founding editor of the Florida Phoenix) wrote a series of stories about what the mill had done to what the paper called “Florida’s Forgotten River.”

Some people in Taylor County didn’t appreciate the coverage, according to Alecia Swasy’s book, “Soap Opera: The Inside Story of Procter & Gamble.” One local businessman complained that Hauserman’s stories were “bombing our county like Hitler’s Germany,” a comparison he apparently did not think through before putting it in a letter to the editor.

Ezell — who at one point faced so many threats she started packing a pistol — said she still runs into that attitude among her neighbors. If you criticize the plant even a little bit, she said, “they start asking, ‘Oh, but what will we do if it closes down?’” They don’t see how the plant can clean up its waste and still continue to operate, but Ezell contends both are possible.

Pipeline, take it away!

As far back as 1992, mill officials have been talking about building a pipeline as a solution. Sort of like the lady in the classic Calgon bath soap commercial shouting, “Calgon, take me away!” they wanted the pipeline to take it all away — the stench, the contamination, the complaints, the threats of legal action.

The pipeline, they said, would run underground and stretch from the plant all the way to the brackish water near the mouth of the river. That way, the mill wouldn’t be dumping anything directly into the river any longer, making the water much cleaner.

Bortone, among others, called this a very bad idea.

Piping the plant’s waste to the Fenholloway’s estuary “could have a very broad effect,” he told what was then called the St. Petersburg Times in 1997. “It could go into oyster communities. It could accumulate in the food chain. These are fish which are eaten by other fish. It could have long-term effects on humans in the area if they eat the fish.”

Mill officials insisted they had explored more than 100 other options for cleaning up their waste stream before concluding the pipeline was the only one that would work — and keep the mill operating, that is.

Georgia-Pacific bought the mill in 2013. The company is owned by Koch Industries, which means it’s owned by the rich and influential Koch brothers, who tend to get what they want from politicians.

Not that there’s a connection to the change in ownership, but a year later, under then-Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection approved building the pipeline as one step among many toward making the Fenholloway “fishable and swimmable.” The Environmental Protection Agency under then-President Barack Obama went along with it.

The company has spent $300 million trying to fix what’s wrong with the Fenholloway, according to longtime mill spokesman Scott Mixon. That includes not just building the pipeline but also making major changes to its chemical processes to try to eliminate dioxins and other dangerous ingredients. They also are restoring San Pedro Bay back into the headwaters it once was.

These are all steps that Ezell and other critics of the mill had been saying were needed for decades.

So if the mill’s waste is cleaner now, why do they still need a pipeline?

“The primary reason for discharging to the tidal portion of the river is due to the salt content or salinity of the treated effluent,” Mixon told me. “Salinity does not pose a concern at the discharge point.”

The bottom line here is that it’s always much cheaper to save the environment from polluters before they have ruined it than it is to try to clean up the major mess they leave years after it’s occurred.

Imagine if we could jump in a time machine — maybe one that looks like a DeLorean — and cruise back to 1947, when Taylor County made its accursed deal with the polluters. Imagine we could persuade them not to sacrifice the river, the aquifer, and the health of their residents by showing them the long-term consequences.

If the mill had never been built, Ezell said, the Fenholloway could today be like the Weeki Wachee or the Rainbow or the Ichetucknee. Those are rivers that attract hordes of well-heeled tourists because they’re still safe to swim and splash around in, not to mention a good place to see fish that aren’t mutated.

“We could have tubers and kayakers and photographers coming here to spend money,” she said.

She’s no fan of the pipeline, calling it “just a Band-aid. It’s to get that stinking, ugly river out of your mind when you cross that bridge.”

Short of finding a time-traveling DeLorean or a giant cork, though, she doesn’t know how to stop the mill from using the pipeline. But she does wish that if it had to be built, it could have taken a different route:

“They should put it right back through their own offices, so they could swim in it.”

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.