A state hearing officer late Wednesday issued a recommended order favoring International Paper and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in a challenge to DEP's proposed permit for the company's paper mill near Contanment in Escambia County.
DEP had proposed a permit requiring the company to remove its discharge pipe from upper Eleven Mile Creek and build a 10-mile pipeline to lower Eleven Mile Creek and Perdido Bay.
The 23.8 million gallons per day of treated wastewater would be discharged into the 1,381 acres of wetlands owned by the company along lower Eleven Mile Creek
Residents Jacqueline and James Lane and Friends of Perdido Bay challenged the permit, saying it would harm the wetlands including Tee and Wicker lakes.
But in his findings, state Administrative Hearing Officer Bram D. E. Canter said the discharge would not be "unreasonably destructive" to the wetlands.
He also wrote that International Paper has no reasonable, alternative means of wastewater disposal other than into waters of the state.
Canter in 2007 had recommended against issuing a permit for the plant because he said the company had not conducted an assessment of the property. DEP then rejected that permit but proposed a new one in 2008 after the company evaluated the wetlands site and removed 103 acres containing threatened and endangered species.
After receiving exceptions to the recommended order and responses within the next 30 days, DEP Secretary Michael Sole will have 45 days within which to issue a final order.
Attorney Marcy LaHart, who represented James Lane and Friends of Perdido Bay, said she understands the judge's reasoning but disagrees with it. She said she doesn't know what action her clients will take at this point.
"It is very frustrating to have to continually fight the Department of Environmental Protection, who seemed far more interested in protecting International Paper than it seemed protecting the public interest," she said.
An International Paper spokeswoman said in an e-mail: "We’re confident that we addressed the issues raised with our last permit application by virtue of the judge’s issuance of a recommended order to grant this permit and look forward to fulfilling the commitment IP made to help improve water quality in the Perdido Bay system nearly a decade ago."
To read the recommended order or review the Division of Administrative Hearings docket, go on the Web to: http://www.doah.state.fl.us/internet/search/docket.cfm?CaseNo=08-003922 .
(Editors note: This story was updated on Jan. 29 to include comments from International Paper, a photo of the plant and a map of the plant and wetlands site provided by the company.)
(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)