ATLANTA — An environmental group is suing Rayonier Inc., alleging that its factory in southeast Georgia is discharging millions of gallons of waste that darken the Altamaha River and make it smell miles downstream.
The Altamaha Riverkeeper filed the lawsuit March 26 against the Jesup mill, which turns wood pulp into high-purity cellulose. Other manufacturers use that cellulose to make digital display screens, impact-resistant plastics, paints and cosmetics. The lawsuit, which has not yet gone to trial, demands that the company change its practices to comply with state and federal anti-pollution laws.
The Riverkeeper organization accuses Rayonier of discharging 50 million to 60 million gallons of polluted effluent daily into the Altamaha River, which flows from the factory in Jesup southeast toward the Atlantic Ocean. Lawyers say the dark discharges and odor violate water quality standards and discourage local residents from swimming or fishing.
"It's like black coffee, and when it's discharged into the river, which is much lighter in color, it creates a very visible plume," said R. Hutton Brown, a lawyer for GreenLaw, which represents the Altamaha Riverkeeper. "It's a really obnoxious smell that emanates from the discharge."
Under the Clean Water Act, people harmed by pollution can file lawsuits seeking to enforce environmental laws. In 2011, Georgia's Environmental Protection Division updated a settlement agreement that required the company to install technology meant to limit discolored discharges into the waterway.
Rayonier's general counsel, Michael Herman, said in a statement that the firm has invested more than $70 million to limit emissions and has met or exceeded the deadlines set by Georgia's environmental regulators. He said the lawsuit filed against the firm was "baseless"
"With the momentum and progress we have already achieved, and with Rayonier's willingness to work collaboratively to identify additional opportunities, working together would be a more effective means of achieving our mutual objectives," Herman said. "Litigation does not solve scientific and engineering challenges — ideas and collaboration do."