Friday, September 02, 2011

A Tale of the Pearl and Swine

Beginning on August 9, the Temple-Inland paper mill in Bogalusa discharged very large amounts of toxic “black liquor” into the Pearl River.  This discharge eventually caused the death of hundreds of thousands of fish and other wildlife throughout the length of the Pearl and beyond, including the death of at least 24 endangered Gulf Sturgeon and an as yet unknown--but significant--impact on endangered Ringed Map turtles and heelsplitter mussels. The company failed, however, to notify the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) until August 13, well after the agency had been alerted by the media who had flocked to the river to investigate local claims of large amounts of dead fish.  Due to its sheer size and scope this event garnered massive attention from local residents and state media, and led to a huge public outcry over the handling of the incident by both the paper mill and the state agencies charged with administering the cleanup effort. It's especially upsetting to the Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club, as our volunteers have been working for nearly 40 years to make the Pearl a cleaner and more protected waterway.
The paper mill at Bogalusa was bought by Temple-Inland Corporation in 2001 from rival paper company Gaylord Container, which had owned the mill since 1986.  Before that, it was run by the Crown Zellerbach Company, which purchased the plant site from the original Great Southern Lumber Company in 1938. Though the mill’s name has changed several times over the years, its poor environmental record has not. The “Pearl River Fish Kill of 2011” is only the latest and most publicized example of this particular mill’s longstanding pollution problems and its various operators’ apparent disregard for the health of the Pearl River and the people and communities that rely on it for their livelihoods and recreation.  Over the years, this mill has dumped over one million pounds of pollution into the Pearl, and is the source of the severe mercury contamination problems which have led to fish consumption advisories being issued for the entire length of the river in Louisiana. Barry Kohl, an environmental champion and long-time member of the New Orleans Group of the Sierra Club, was instrumental in getting those advisories established, as well as working to see that the plant stopped dumping mercury compounds, which it finally did with EPA's "encouragement" in 1998.

On August 22, the Louisiana Senate Committee on Environmental Quality held a public hearing in Bogalusa to learn the causes and details of this incident and to hear from representatives of Temple-Inland, agency officials, and the concerned members of the public. The testimony from Temple-Inland was long on apologies but short on answers to the questions of the Senators. This may be because the companies fears disclosing any information that may incriminate it in future enforcement actions by state agencies. At that meeting, elected leaders and state officials said that they would not allow the plant to re-open until assurances could be made that "this will never happen again," and promised that they would “keep working as long as it takes” to clean up the mess and restore the Pearl River. Although official promises are a nice start, we know that they are not always kept and that the public must remain diligent to that they follow though in holding Temple-Inland fully accountable for their longstanding degradation of the Pearl River. In fact, the plant was given permission to reopen--and resume discharging into the Pearl--on August 29. Its pollution permits or pollution control technologies have not been changed, which gives us reason to suspect that this may simply be another slap on the wrist from Louisiana officials to polluting industries.

Photo Credit Janice O'Berry
The Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club has been involved in Pearl River issues since the 1970's, and our record there is substantial. Over the years, our volunteers have been instrumental in getting Endangered Species protections for Gulf Sturgeons and other species, working to establish the Pearl as a Louisiana Scenic River and EPA Outstanding Natural Resource, reducing toxic mercury pollution in the River and warning the public about the dangers of eating mercury-contaminated fish, and working to make sure that the LDEQ enforces environmental laws like the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts that Sierra Club worked to establish.

More recently, we have been working with local residents and conservation allies to understand the depth of the fish kill and discover the best strategy for restoring the Pearl River. Pearl River resident Janice O’Berry has reached out to us to help with the circulation of a petition that calls for accountability and the establishment of an independent conservation program for the Pearl that would help to restore the river, educate the public on its importance, and improve public access. If you would like to add your name to this petition, click here.

In order to stop another major pollution event, we need to make sure that state agencies do their jobs by enforcing fines and penalties against the mill, as well as allowing for more citizen input into any important decisions that affect those who live near the river. We need to ensure that state and federal agencies do a complete assessment of the damages, including an accurate count of the types and numbers of fish and other wildlife that were impacted.  A large portion of the potential fines to be levied will be based on these counts, so its crucial that we have an accurate assessment. We also need to be certain that any fines that are paid by Temple-Inland go to the restoration of the Pearl River, and don’t get dumped into a general fund to help spackle over the state’s budget problems. We need your voice to achieve these goals, so please look below to find out how you can contact state officials and let them know that you want full accountability and restoration of the Pearl.

Finally, another public meeting will be held on Wednesday, September 7, 6:30pm at the Harbor Center in Slidell. If you can, please come out to this hearing and show your support for the Pearl River. At the meeting, interested and affected individuals can sign up to make a short public comment to tell the Senate Committee what they think should be done in order to begin to address this disaster.

We need you to tell the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) that the recent fish kill on the Pearl River is unacceptable, and they must do everything in their power to:
  •          Hold the Temple-Inland paper mill fully accountable for their actions
  •     Use all fines for restoration and environmental programs on the Pearl River
  •     Allow greater public input and comments over decisions that affect those who live near the Pearl River

To make the best impact, make a few phone calls.  It’s best to call both the Secretary and Chair (Morrell) of the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality, as well as the Secretary and Enforcement Division of LDEQ. You can also send an email to all of them, or call those Senators that represent your district (map of districts).

Senate Environmental Quality Committee
Secretary Betty Boudreaux                                    225-342-1771
Chair--Sen. “J.P.” Morrell (Dist. 3):                 504-284-4794

LDEQ Enforcement Division:                              225-219-3715
Secretary LDEQ Peggy Hatch:       225-219-3953

Vice-Chair--Sen. “Buddy” Shaw (Dist. 37):                337-861-5941
Senator Jody Amedee (Dist. 18):                       225-644-1526
Senator Dan “Blade” Morrish (Dist. 25):            337-824-5898
Senator Dale Erdey (Dist. 13):                             225-686-2881
Senator Sherri Cheek (Dist. 38):                    318-687-4820
Senator  A.G. Crowe (Dist. 1):                             985-643-3600

“I am writing/calling to urge you to hold Temple-Inland accountable for their pollution of the Pearl River and to ensure that this never happens again. The recent fish kill is only the most recent of the ongoing damage to the Pearl from this very same paper mill. The state must act to protect the wildlife and beauty of the Pearl, as well as the families that live, work and play around the River.

It is crucial that state and federal agencies do a complete and thorough cleanup, and make an accurate count of the types and numbers of fish and wildlife killed or harmed by the plant’s discharge of toxic black liquor, so that a just penalty can be levied. It’s also important to ensure that all fine money goes directly to programs and efforts that will improve the ecology, environment, and communities of the Pearl River, and not go to other state expenses.

It’s also very important to allow citizens to have a voice over the decisions that affect their lives. The public should be given notice and be allowed to comment on the pollution permits, policies, and any restoration efforts regarding the Pearl River.

Public officials should keep their word when they say that they will “keep working as long as it takes” to fix the Pearl River and ensure it never happens again. I hope the state lives up to its promises and holds Temple-Inland accountable for its actions.”