A follow-up hearing of the Louisiana State Senate Committee on Environmental Quality to discuss the August Pearl River fish kill featured state agencies, parish officials and locals, but not the culprit — Temple-Inland.
Officials from the paper mill were scheduled to appear, but contacted committee Chairman Sen. J.P. Morrell just 30 minutes before the meeting to say they would not attend. Morrell told the full crowd at the Northshore Harbor Center in Slidell that Temple-Inland had sent along a written statement, but he would not put residents through hearing him read it. He also said the committee should have served subpoenas to Temple-Inland to ensure they would show up.
Funny, a lawyer in the public comment period of the last meeting said the exact same thing!
Temple-Inland had sent a representative to the first Senate meeting Aug. 22 in Bogalusa. But according to a blog post filed by LABB’s Anna Hrybyk after that meeting, the representative had little to say besides a prepared statement. And most Senate questions were met with the response “I don’t know.”
Thankfully, the Senate committee didn’t seem to let the paper mill’s uncooperative attitude slide, and suggested to Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Peggy Hatch that her team take this into account when issuing penalties. LDEQ gave an update on its continued monitoring of the Pearl River and water quality (Everything looks good, folks! Nothing to worry about!), and said a more recent, smaller fish kill in the river was related to Tropical Storm Lee and not Temple-Inland.
That statement was met with stifled laughter and shaking heads from the crowd.
A matter of confusion between Senate committee members and LDEQ seemed to be about the “black liquor,” a byproduct of paper-making with a high pH that Temple-Inland illegally dumped into the river, which depleted oxygen and led to the fish kill. The paper mill is allowed to dump a certain amount of treated wastewater into the river, per permits with LDEQ (though St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis noted the facility has been operating under an expired permit for quite some time). The paper mill is not allowed to dump the “black liquor,” so it usually recycles the chemicals or stores it in the facility.
As one LDEQ official said, “The spill wasn’t part of their normal discharges.”
As to what chemicals are in black liquor, an LDEQ official explained that sodium hydroxide is used to cook and separate wood fibers at the paper mill, which leads to the sludge waste. But LDEQ acknowledged that besides sodium hydroxide, other chemicals could have been dumped into the river with the black liquor. They are still trying to determine what other chemicals were involved.
An official from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said that current estimates from the fish kill show more than 151,000 fish were killed, consisting of 26 species. That number included 139 paddlefish and 26 Gulf sturgeon (an endangered species). Also, more than 145,000 mussels were killed. The state has restitution values for each fish killed and higher price tags for endangered species (Gulf sturgeon is set at $2,762 per fish).
A member of the Honey Island Conservation Program disputed the accuracy of LWF’s numbers during public comment, saying she witnessed two LWF employees standing on a bank of the river that was covered in dead paddlefish. One turned to the other and said, “Do you think there’s about 40 dead paddlefish here?” The other agreed and they moved on. She said based on that encounter, she doubts LWF took a true count of dead Gulf sturgeon or any other fish.
Several Senate members agreed on that point, saying certain species may have sank to the bottom or went into holes to die.
Another matter of contention was the fact that Temple-Inland quickly went back into operation after LDEQ approved their request to begin discharging wastewater into the river again. LDEQ’s Peggy Hatch said their approval came with some requirements, including upgrades to its wastewater tanks and expanding ponds to prevent spills from leaving the facility.
St. Tammany Parish President Davis asked if these requirements took into account heavy rain events that could cause overflow of such tanks — the mill began operating again right before Tropical Storm Lee. An LDEQ official acknowledged that “I don’t think rain events were discussed. That probably should have been done.”
The fact that stormwater capacity wasn’t considered is a problem that wasn’t lost on the St. Tammany official or most of the community members in the crowd. Refineries and chemical plants in the state have long cited rain events as a frequent cause of accidents, and LABB has reported on this before, even in direct communications with LDEQ.
As Pearl River resident Sergio deRada told the committee during public comment: “It sounds like DEQ are spokespersons for the mill.”
Throughout the meeting, the news that International Paper, the largest pulp and paper maker, is buying Temple-Inland came up. Many wondered if this purchase would affect the new requirements for the mill after the spill, but Hatch said the agreed-upon infrastructure changes would stand. Sen. Morrell said at least twice that International Paper has an “impeccable” environmental record and would likely be a much better neighbor to Pearl River communities than Temple-Inland.
Time will tell.