The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) takes its mission to protect, conserve and manage the state’s natural resources and enforce its environmental laws very seriously. We are tasked with the important responsibility of ensuring that our regulated facilities operate in a manner that is protective of the environment. Along with Florida's rules and statutes, permits issued by the department establish criteria and conditions that help protect and preserve Florida’s air and water quality, while supporting a vibrant economy.
DEP is authorized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue permits to regulate discharges to surface waters under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). NPDES permits include requirements that are tailored to the specific operations of the facility, require compliance with surface water quality standards, and establish stringent monitoring requirements to ensure these standards are met. DEP is responsible for the regulation of approximately 2,000 NPDES wastewater facilities throughout Florida, one of which is International Paper (IP) in Pensacola.
IP owns and operates a Kraft paper mill located at 375 Muscogee Rd. in Cantonment, Florida. The facility processes industrial wastewater, stormwater, and pretreated sanitary wastewaters associated with a Kraft process pulp and paper mill and discharges its wastewater to waters of the state.
What is the status of IP's NPDES wastewater permit?
The NPDES wastewater permit governing IP's wastewater was issued in 2010 and remains in effect. An application for permit renewal was received by the department and was timely and sufficient in accordance with Florida Rule Chapter 62-62 .335 (3); therefore, the 2010 permit remains in effect until the department takes final agency action on the application.
IP's 2010 permit required significant changes from the previous permit, including the relocation of their discharge from upper Elevenmile Creek to a new 1,381-acre effluent distribution system that has since been created on an existing wetland area owned by IP. A consent order (2010 Order) was issued along with the permit establishing a schedule for achieving compliance with the new permit requirements.
Despite IP’s implementation of the 2010 Order’s corrective actions, full and continued compliance with the Permit’s final effluent limitations has not been achieved.
What are the next steps regarding IP's application for renewal?
The department has not yet taken action on the application for permit renewal. As is done with every application for renewal, the department is evaluating the application to ensure it complies with all existing regulations, as well as looking carefully at current permit requirements to determine what changes are needed to ensure the protection of our waterways if the permit is to be renewed. As part of this evaluation, we are reviewing all available data regarding the facility’s discharge, the functionality of the wetland effluent distribution system, water quality and historical compliance.
The department must have reasonable assurance of the facility's ability to comply with the permit and Florida's water quality regulations before a renewal permit can be issued. Part of this assurance is the facility demonstrating that they are able to successfully address historic compliance concerns with whole effluent toxicity and meeting water quality limits for specific conductance, dissolved oxygen, pH and turbidity.
What steps has DEP taken to address compliance issues?
The department determined the Petition to be incomplete and informed IP on April 24, 2020 of the items in the Petition that need to be addressed. On May 22, 2020 an amended Petition for Rule Making was received. On July 24, 2020, the department informed IP that the petition is complete based on the proposed removal of Dissolved Oxygen SSAC from the petition.
The facility has also been under a Whole Effluent Toxicity (WET) correction plan since 2012 due to Chronic Toxicity failures.
To address ongoing compliance concerns, the department and IP executed a Consent Order on April 28, 2020 (2020 Order) to establish definitive milestones and resolution for achieving compliance. In addition to corrective actions, the 2020 Consent Order requires IP to pay penalties of $190,000.00 and to implement a mitigation project equivalent to at least $1,000,000.00. It also stipulates penalties for future violations.
Following a Petition for Administrative Hearing, an Administrative Hearing was held and a Recommended Order was issued Dec. 16, 2020 stating: “Based on the foregoing Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, it is RECOMMENDED that the Department of Environmental Protection enter a final order approving the Consent Order, OGC File No. 19-1453.”
Site Specific Alternative Criteria (SSAC) is surface water quality criterion developed for a particular waterbody, or segment of a waterbody, designed to more accurately reflect site specific conditions. Approval of a SSAC is dependent on a demonstration that the alternative water quality criterion is more appropriate for the waterbody than the one that normally applies for the classification (designated use). If approved, a SSAC is used instead of (or sometimes in conjunction with) the existing applicable surface water criterion associated with that waterbody’s classification. In addition to water quality and public health and safety, a SSAC also recognizes and accounts for the specific needs of the biological community native to the waterbody to make sure they are fully protected. A SSAC must be approved by both the Environmental Regulation Commission and the EPA. The approval process includes opportunities for public input.
What is Whole Effluent Toxicity?
Toxicity tests, or bioassays, are tests performed to measure the aggregate effect of toxicants in the effluent to aquatic organisms. IP must pass acute and chronic toxicity thresholds on the test organisms Ceriodaphnia dubia (water flea) and Pimephales promelas (fathead minnow) when these organisms are placed in 100% effluent.
These tests are conducted at the point of discharge to the 1,381-acre effluent distribution system (EDS) wetland area that is contained on IP’s private property where the public cannot access. In accordance with IP’s Whole Effluent Correction Plan, IP reported that Chronic Toxicity was not observed within the EDS.
Acute Toxicity is determined at 96 hours and measures if effluent produces mortality on test organisms. IP passes the acute toxicity threshold with survival of these organisms in 100% effluent.
Chronic Toxicity is determined after a longer period of time (approximately seven days) and measures non-lethal effects in addition to mortality on these organisms. IP is required to pass the Chronic Toxicity Test based on survival and reproduction levels or growth of these organisms in 100% effluent.
Since 2012, IP has had failures of their Chronic Toxicity Tests due to reproduction levels of the Ceriodaphnia dubia. In accordance with requirements of their permit, after three valid test failures within a 12 month period, IP implemented a correction plan in 2013. While the initial correction plan has been revised and IP has completed various studies, full and continued compliance with Chronic Toxicity Tests has not been achieved.
Water Quality Modeling Study
DEP is requiring IP to conduct a water quality modeling study of the receiving waters of the discharge from the IP wetland effluent distribution system, including lower Elevenmile Creek, Tee and Wicker Lakes and Perdido Bay. The study will be conducted in accordance with the Modeling Work Plan (MWP) approved by DEP pursuant to Rule 62-650.500, F.A.C. The purpose of this study is to establish appropriate Water Quality Based Effluent Limits (WQBELs) to provide reasonable assurance that IP's discharge will not cause or contribute to a) the low dissolved oxygen (DO) levels in Tee and Wicker Lakes and the downstream portion of Elevenmile Creek, nor to b) exceedances of the numeric nutrient and DO criteria in Upper Perdido Bay.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is the state’s lead agency for environmental management and stewardship – protecting our air, water and land. The vision of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is to create strong community partnerships, safeguard Florida’s natural resources and enhance its ecosystems.