Evidence Is Mounting That a Koch Brothers-Owned Paper Plant Is Poisoning People in Arkansas (Video)

The economic pulse of Crossett, a small town of some 5,500 people in west Arkansas, has long been measured through the paper and pulp processing plant owned by the Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific. A subsidiary of Koch Industries, Georgia-Pacific is one of the world's largest manufacturers of pulp and paper products, including paper towels (like Brawny) and toilet paper (like Angel Soft).

A bulwark of the blue-collar community, Georgia-Pacific has provided generations of families with a steady stream of well-paid jobs replete with health packages and retirement plans. The plant in Crossett employs around 1,200 people, over three-quarters of whom are from the town or surrounding Ashley County. Many speculate that without the plant, Crossett would simply wither and die. But others fear that the plant has already been slowly poisoning those who live there for decades.

“People are afraid—afraid and scared to say something,” said David Bouie, who worked at the plant for about 10 years, his wife for over 25 years. They live in Crossett, and suffer respiratory and sinus problems, sore throats, nausea and allergies—symptoms, he says, that are shared among many of his neighbors.

“They don’t want to be part of something that could see the mill go away,” Bouie, 69, said. “But we don’t want the mill to go away, we just want it to be fixed and to operate within compliance of the law.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, Georgia Pacific emits approximately 1.5 million pounds of pollutants every year, including highly toxic chemicals like dioxins, formaldehyde and naphthalene. Then there’s the 45 million gallons of wastewater Georgia-Pacific is permitted to release every day.

At the crux of the wastewater issue is Coffee Creek, a waterway that meanders along the edge of Crossett into Mossy Lake, some 15 miles from town, before joining the Ouachita River. Large portions of Coffee Creek are on Georgia-Pacific land, behind fences, hidden from prying eyes. The creek is at the center of disagreements as to the exact route of Georgia-Pacific’s wastewater discharge.

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The aeration pond in Coffee Creek that makes up part of Georgia-Pacific's wastewater treatment system. The company is permitted to discharge 45 million gallons of wastewater daily. (credit: Nicolaus Czarnecki)

Barry Sulkin, an environmental scientist with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, believes Georgia-Pacific’s wastewater system is in Coffee Creek, where the effluent is only partially treated, turning the water in the creek black and contaminating it with an array of dangerous pollutants like dioxins and furans, chromium and sulfates. U.S. Geological Survey maps support his claims of the wastewater discharge, as does a 1984 Use Attainability Analysis stating how effluent from an aeration lagoon flows “via Coffee Creek to Mossy Lake.”

The wastewater route is important: Coffee Creek, say critics of the plant, emits a potent hydrogen sulfide stench like rotten eggs that, at its worst, leaves nearby residents like the Bouies struggling for breath. Higher instances of illnesses, cancers and deaths are reported along streets closest to the creek. A civil rights petition filed in April argues that emissions from the plant and its wastewater discharges disproportionately impacts African-American neighborhoods in the area.

A spokesperson for Georgia-Pacific said Coffee Creek is a separate stream from the wastewater treatment process all the way until Mossy Lake. Georgia-Pacific’s own video from March, however, appears to show the wastewater following a series of pipes and above-ground water treatment systems along the route of Coffee Creek, before discharging into Coffee Creek as it flows toward Mossy Lake.

Earlier this year, Georgia Pacific wrote a letter to USGS asking that the name of Coffee Creek be assigned to a different waterway.

Tensions are high as Georgia-Pacific seeks to renew its wastewater disposal permit. For decades, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality has permitted Georgia-Pacific to discharge waste into Coffee Creek and Mossy Lake, determining that neither were suitable for domestic water supplies nor living aquatic life. But a 2007 EPA study found that without the discharge from Georgia-Pacific, Coffee Creek and Mossy Lake have the potential to sustain a diverse living aquatic community “indicative of streams in the ecoregion.”

This means that the creek and Mossy Lake should be protected by the Clean Water Act, which prohibits the release of harmful amounts of pollutants into the nation’s waterways, said Sulkin. “I’ve seen things this bad some 20 to 30 years ago, but I didn’t know this kind of thing was still going on in the United States,” he says.

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David Bouie (foreground) and his wife worked at the G-P plant for many years. Now they suffer from a range of health issues. Cheryl Slavant (background) of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network has been trying to hold G-P accountable. (credit: Nicolaus Czarnecki)

Air emissions from the plant are another area of scrutiny. Under fire, last year Georgia Pacific installed an air monitor roughly 500 yards from David Bouie’s home. But is a single air monitor enough to accurately map the extent of the air pollution around Crossett? Environmental scientist Wilma Subra doesn’t think so. She spent a week in Crossett conducting her own air quality tests, and detected two hydrogen sulfide “plumes” around the plant and the wastewater operations.

“As the different weather conditions occurred, there were different parts of the community being exposed,” she said. “You clearly saw where the entire community was exposed to the emissions.”

From the start of this year through the end of June, the air monitor near Bouie’s home recorded readings of hydrogen sulfide above a threshold of 70 parts per billion (ppb) six times. The highest reading was 215 ppb, taken in February.

“Hydrogen sulfide is very nauseating at 50 ppb. It makes you want to have to leave the area,” Subra said. Acute symptoms like headaches and nausea are found at exposure to hydrogen sulfide in the ambient air at levels of around 30 ppb. At around 500 ppb, exposure to hydrogen sulfide can cause pulmonary edema, hemorrhagic bronchitis, and asphyxiation. Hydrogen sulfide exposure has also been linked to strokes.

Between 1999-2010, the stroke death rate for Ashley County was 106.4 per 100,000 people, significantly higher than for Arkansas as a whole: 65.3 per 100,000 people. And Arkansas is ranked first in the nation for stroke mortality.

Pushback by proponents of Georgia-Pacific has been strong; understandably so, given its standing in the town. Some point to how the cancer rate for Ashley County is slightly lower than for the whole of Arkansas. The Arkansas Department of Health released a report in June that found no problems with Crossett’s drinking water. “Community members in Crossett who have a serious medical condition deserve sympathy, and our thoughts and prayers are with them,” wrote Georgia-Pacific spokesperson, Kelly Ferguson, in an email to AlterNet. “However, any suggestion that cancers or other serious medical conditions are linked to GP’s Crossett operations is not based on facts.”

Critics of the plant say that these studies are misleading. No official health surveys have been done solely in Crossett. Meanwhile, Anthony Samsel, an expert in hazardous chemical materials, independently tested samples from municipal and private water supplies in Crossett. He found an array of toxic chemicals like benzene, acetone and methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), a gasoline additive, in the municipal drinking water. He also found methylene chloride, a volatile solvent, in private wells. The levels, though comparatively low, were high enough to cause serious molecular harm, he said, adding that these chemicals “simply should not be there."

Other evidence stacks up, too, the pace of which has accelerated since the release of the 2012 Brave New Films documentary, "Koch Brothers Exposed," which first shone a national spotlight on the problems at Crossett.

Dickie Guice, a former employee of Georgia-Pacific, is a whistleblower featured in a documentary called "Company Town," which was released this summer, directed by Natalie Kottke-Masocco and co-directed by Erica Sardarian, who both spoke with AlterNet on background for this story. The film chronicles four years of efforts by concerned residents and environmentalists to bring attention to the problems at Crossett.

Guice recently went on record in the New Yorker to explain how his supervisors told him to illegally dump waste from the plant, sometimes in pits 40 feet deep which he would then cover with six inches of dirt.

Back in the 1990s, when residents began to complain about the foul odors in Crossett, Georgia-Pacific went door to door offering money in exchange for signed waivers essentially absolving them of any past, present and future personal or property damage.

Last year, an EPA inspection of the plant found multiple areas of non-compliance and concern. The EPA paid another visit to the plant at the end of last month. But according to Cheryl Slavant of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the EPA’s response is too little too late—a result of the agency for too long bending under political pressure. “The way I see it, the EPA is as guilty as Georgia-Pacific is.” An EPA spokesperson said that the agency will not comment on ongoing enforcement cases until they are concluded.

Meanwhile, as residents are left to suffer, Slavant can only come to one conclusion. The EPA and the Arkansas DEQ “allow Georgia-Pacific to break the law," she said.

Watch the trailer for "Company Town":

Watch the full documentary, "Koch Brothers Exposed":

[Author's note: In its original version, this article failed to mention how Brave New Films first shone a spotlight on this story in their 2012 documentary, Koch Brothers Exposed.]

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