| By S. Heather Duncan
Telegraph Staff Writer
DUBLIN - Those who tote old newspapers to recycling bins inside plastic bags, tossing it all in together, are helping pollute the Oconee River. So are recyclers who don't remove newspapers from their plastic rain sleeves.
These plastics infiltrate the newspaper recycling process at the Dublin factory owned by SP Newsprint Co., where company officials say six pounds of shredded plastic are released into the Oconee River daily.
SP Newsprint and the Altamaha Riverkeeper advocacy organization have begun negotiations to build on the company's previous efforts to reduce the plastic entering the river. But Riverkeeper representatives say they may still sue if SP Newsprint stops cooperating.
Headquartered in Atlanta, SP Newsprint is a general partnership between the Cox Enterprises, Knight Ridder and Media General newspaper companies. Knight Ridder owns The Telegraph.
Thomas Tyler of Dublin first noticed the floating plastic in April when he was fishing with his wife at a spot they call "the mullet hole" near the outflow from the plant. The water began to bubble, foam and stink, he said, and little pieces of plastic about the size of a quarter floated to the surface.
Tyler said he has caught fish with sores on their bodies downstream from the plant. Although he used to go fishing most weekends, now he is hesitant to eat fish from the river, he said. Other members of the nearby Laurens County Sportsmen's Club have also complained about the plastic.
After hearing from fishermen like the Tylers, the Altamaha Riverkeeper notified SP Newsprint in July that the company had 60 days to respond before facing a lawsuit.
Representatives of both met Monday and toured the plant. Wednesday, they said the meeting was productive and that they'd rather work together to improve the process than get mired in a lawsuit.
"We anticipate having further meetings and a good working relationship with the Riverkeepers," said Pete Labella, SP Newsprint vice president of human resources. "We consider ourselves a very environmentally friendly company."
The company has already taken steps to reduce its plastic releases and is expected to make further progress with a major equipment replacement in 2006, according to the company and the Environmental Protection Division.
But Deborah Sheppard, Riverkeeper executive director, said her organization is likely to present a list of suggestions, probably next week, for creating more immediate reductions.
"They are doing a very good thing, recycling newspapers," Sheppard said. "However, doing something good does not allow them to do something very bad."
Among the likely suggestions: Invest in more public education. "People who recycle are not people who want to see their recycling effort result in plastic going into the river," she said.
SP Newsprint maintains that it is meeting the conditions of its state permit to discharge water into the Oconee. State regulators back them up.
Jeff Larson, EPD manager of water permit enforcement and compliance, said the permit contains no limits on plastic, and the state doesn't require the company to report the amount of plastic it releases.
"We've identified (the plastic) as an operation and maintenance need," he said. "If we see the need to put a plastics limit in the permit, we can. ... A lot of it is a judgment call."
Sheppard questioned that judgment. "The Altamaha Riverkeeper will not concede it is legal to discharge plastic into the river," she said.
Alan Leake, an EPD environmental engineer who deals with the Dublin plant, said the EPD has been monitoring the escaped plastic for two years and has asked for reductions.
Mark Rawlings, SP Newsprint senior vice president of operations, said the company has focused on removing plastic during the initial sorting phase, cleaning screens in the wastewater process more often to remove plastic, and reducing the amount of contamination it will accept in loads from suppliers.
By 2006, the company will install new pulpers that will leave larger pieces of plastic, which are easier to catch in the screens. "This will definitely make a major improvement in what escapes," Leake said.
Leake said the company has reduced its plastic output, although it hasn't provided any objective measurement of the reduction.
"We feel very strongly that we're in compliance with our permit, but we're willing to work with (the Riverkeeper) to go beyond compliance to improve," Rawlings said. "We don't have any evidence that we're harming fish life in the river."
Sheppard said she appreciates the company's openness, but she disagrees about the effect of the plastic.
"We know fish and organisms eat things floating on the water," Sheppard said, noting that plastic is a petroleum by-product. "Any organism that consumes plastic is eating something that can damage its biological function. Common sense would tell you it's not a good idea."
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