Floridians, be thankful for the pains in the butt

Jackie Lane has been trying for decades to get a paper mill to stop releasing pollution into Perdido Bay. Source: Jackie Land

Jackie Lane knows a lot of people think she’s a pain in the butt. They wish she would just shut up and sit down. Stop causing so many problems for the paper mill near Pensacola. Stop putting people’s jobs at risk.

“The community is not particularly fond of environmental activists,” she told me this week. “There’s a lot of opposition.”

She doesn’t care. She soldiers on, year after year, battling for her beloved Perdido Bay, an hourglass-shaped estuary that straddles the Florida-Alabama state line near Pensacola. She’s not at all shy about saying what she thinks about anyone who threatens it. She is, as my daddy used to say, “rough as a cob.”

Lane and her husband Jim, an engineering professor, moved to a home on the bay’s northern end in 1975. They raised their kids there. They went swimming twice a day, every day. They fished for flounder, redfish, and mullet and enjoyed dining on what they caught.

“Not anymore,” she said. Nowadays she sees nothing but the occasional catfish, and the last time she tried swimming in Perdido Bay she emerged feeling like her skin was on fire.

She first noticed something was wrong in the mid-1980s.

Before she got married and started having children, Jackie Lane had earned a doctorate in marine biology from the University of South Florida. When she first moved to Perdido Bay, she was amazed by the clams she found there and began studying them.

“There were so many clams you could put your foot down on the bay bottom and one foot would cover 10 clams,” she said. “They were that thick.”

Then, in 1986, “they all died,” she said. She checked with officials from what was then known as the state Department of Environmental Regulation, who told her, “Well, it might be because of the paper mill.”

Well, of course it was.

“Stink Creek” and the smell of money

Built in 1941 in the then-rural enclave known as Cantonment (pronounced can-TOHN-ment), the paper mill has been owned by a succession of companies: the Florida Pulp & Paper Co., Champion International, St. Regis, and now International Paper, the world’s largest paper company.

When I was growing up in Pensacola in the 1960s, everyone joked that the stench from the Cantonment paper mill was so bad that pilots from Pensacola’s Navy base never worried about getting lost. If their instruments went out, they just popped open their airplane canopies and sniffed their way back home. (People in Jacksonville used to respond to similar complaints about the paper mill in their town by saying it smelled like money.)

The air pollution wasn’t the worst part. Year after year, the mill dumped millions of gallons of polluted waste into a stream called Eleven Mile Creek, which flows into the poorly flushed northern segment of Perdido Bay. People joked that the tributary’s real name was “Stink Creek.” A friend of mine said he remembers the smell being similar to “dirty athletic shoes stored in a gym locker too long and then sprayed with industrial strength antiseptic cleaner.”

According to a history written by Lane’s group, Friends of Perdido Bay, after the mill began operating the water in the bay turned brown, seagrass died, and the fish began to disappear.

The bay’s degradation chased away commercial shrimpers who earned a living there back when the water was clear. As for the clams, Lane said, they died because the paper mill had accidentally or on purpose dumped the contents of one of its settling ponds, sending a big dose of its waste cascading down the creek all at once.

A 1999 report by a local grand jury said no matter who owned the mill, not once in its history had that polluting paper factory “ever fully met state water quality standards. We found instead a pattern of violations, studies, and promises to improve, followed by more violations, more studies, and more promises and so forth — all of which was accommodated and/or constructively approved by [state regulators].”

International Paper acquired the mill 20 years ago. After checking a dictionary, I think the correct word for the new owners’ relationship with the Department of Environmental Protection would be “cozy.”

An example: Then-DEP secretary David Struhs cut a deal for his agency to lend $56 million at below-market interest rates to build a treatment plant and pipeline that would primarily be used to redirect International Paper’s waste.

Such loans, which use federal tax dollars supplied by the EPA, are supposed to go to public utilities, not to a private company. To get around that requirement, Struhs made some calls and persuaded the Escambia County Utilities Authority to apply for the loan with the promise that International Paper would repay 80 percent of it.

With the deal secured, Struhs resigned as DEP secretary. He’d gotten a new job as the vice president for environmental affairs at International Paper.

State law says the DEP should only allow pollution to be dumped into the state’s waterways if it’s in the public interest. During one 2007 court hearing, a DEP employee testified, “We considered International Paper’s interest as public interest.” It’s the Florida version of “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”

The DEP has taken such a benign attitude toward the company that when its 2010 pollution permit expired five years ago, the state let it continue pumping 24 million gallons of pollution out every day.

In May, the agency at last meted out some punishment for the continued violations of water quality standards, requiring the company to pay $190,000 in penalties, implement a $1 million environmental mitigation project, and pay a $10,000 fine each time it falls short of the requirements. (International Paper’s revenue for the 12 months ending Sept. 30 was $20 billion, so they can probably scratch together these payments from the change in the CEO’s couch cushions.)

“We wish to make it very clear that the department’s expectation is that you will work as expeditiously as possible to address the ongoing compliance issues at your facility,” said the DEP — while still allowing the mill to dump 24 million gallons of pollution a day.

Something to be thankful for

The death of all those clams in 1986 drew Lane and her husband into fighting against the mill’s dumping, a fight that had begun with other activists going to court in the 1970s. She was in her forties at the time she enlisted in the battle. She’s now 77 and still fighting.

Her husband died in 2012 but that didn’t stop her. Other allies faded away over the years as well, even as she has carried on.

“A lot of people have gotten old and died,” she said, but “we’ve also gotten some new folks and contributions that pay for quite a bit of testing.”

I asked the corporate spokesman for International Paper to tell me their view of Lane’s long-lasting crusade against their company. His response: “International Paper is committed to protecting the environment as healthy and sustainable watersheds are essential to our community and our business. Concerning the administrative challenge, we are unable to comment on ongoing litigation.”

In other words, they can’t talk about Lane suing to stop them because she’s still suing to stop them. She just went through a Zoom court hearing earlier this month, facing off against attorneys for the DEP and the company all by herself. (The DEP did not respond to my request for a comment on its long history of not holding International Paper to account.)

“The people from the mill have always been pretty nice,” Lane said. But she said she has gotten a lot of flak from the mill’s union, and from Democratic politicians supported by the union, as well as from the industries that sell products to the mill, such as the chemical plants and the forestry folks. She says she quit her job teaching at Pensacola Junior College because she grew tired of the trolling from students and other teachers.

The county’s pro-business Republican commissioners are no fans of hers, either. One of them, to show that Perdido Bay is as clean as could be, stood waist-deep in the bay and drank a glass of its water.

“Yeah, he’s an idiot,” Lane said, proving she could never be a State Department diplomat.

When Hurricane Sally passed nearby in September, it splashed a big glop of the bay bottom onto her property. She had it tested. It was contaminated with cancer-causing dioxins, mercury, and other toxic pollutants. Perhaps the commissioner could consider all that stuff “flavoring.”

Lane says she understands the community’s desire to keep the paper mill open and running, supplying steady jobs: “Nobody wants to see that paper mill close — but nobody wants it in their bay, either.”

I wanted to tell you Jackie Lane’s story this week because, while she may be a pain in the butt, she and other activists like her seem to be doing more to protect Florida from pollution than certain agencies that have “protection” in their name.

So whether you’re gathering with your whole family this Thanksgiving or eating alone to avoid coronavirus, be sure to say a prayer of thanks for all the pains in the butt like Jackie Lane. Without them, we here in Florida would be up Stink Creek without a paddle.