All options afloat for IP ponds

Published 9:17 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

FRANKLIN—While International Paper Co. must decide what to do with the equipment, buildings and infrastructure at its Franklin mill, it must also decide the fate of a network of wastewater-treatment facilities that support the mill, including a large holding pond in Suffolk.

Mark Sauer, an environmental engineer with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said Tuesday that IP — like all papermaking companies — uses a lot of water to make its products.

“The papermaking process, in general, uses a lot of water,” Sauer said. “Papermakers use it to break down the pulp from the wood. (But) IP has done a very good job in reducing the amount of water they’ve used in the process over the years. They’re probably down to about the minimum amount of water they can use in that process. But it’s still water intensive.”

According to satellite photographs and confirmed by Sauer, IP uses clarifiers and other facilities just below the paper mill to remove solids and treat water after the papermaking process at the mill. Pulp mill effluent enters a pond called Pond B-2 through several aerators.

“Some satellite pictures, you look at that, you’ll notice it looks like white swirls in it,” Blackwater-Nottoway Riverkeeper Jeff Turner said of Pond B-2.

A dam sits at the southeast corner of Pond B-2 and connects to an underground pipeline, which runs approximately two miles to the south and empties into the Union Camp Holding Pond — a man-made body of water that measures approximately 7,000 feet at its widest point and is about 10,400 feet for much of its length. An earthen berm surrounds the pond, holding the water back from surrounding farmland and a few homes in the extreme southwest corner of the City of Suffolk.

“Most of the solids and excess pulp is taken care of in the treatment process before it gets to the holding pond,” Sauer said. “The holding pond is strictly for wastewater itself.”

Sauer said the water in the Union Camp Holding Pond isn’t dangerous to humans or wildlife. The biggest problem with the water is low dissolved oxygen.

“Dissolved oxygen is the amount of oxygen available in the water for fish and other aquatic organisms to breathe,” Sauer said. “The wastewater from paper making and many other industrial and municipal activities are low in dissolved oxygen.”

He added that the water in the holding pond “meets all of our water quality standards and is safe for discharge.”

That discharge occurs on a set schedule during the winter months, via a smaller pond below the Union Camp Holding Pond called C-Pond, and a canal that runs to a release gate at the Blackwater River. The release gate is just north of the North Carolina state line and the confluence with the Nottoway River. The Blackwater and Nottoway form the Chowan River south of the confluence.

Sauer said IP’s next release into the Blackwater River would be within the next 13 to 20 days, depending on river conditions, and would run through March. Satellite photographs indicate the Union Camp Holding Pond becomes muddy and swampy after the discharges.

“They discharge during the winter when river flows are high and the dissolved oxygen in the river is high, so the river is able to assimilate that discharge,” Sauer said.

Turner concurred. “That’s why IP waits until the wintertime, when the dissolved oxygen level in the river is usually higher. They don’t want to drop the dissolved oxygen level below a limit that is safe for fish.”

The future of the ponds, like the paper mill, is up to IP.

“Right now IP is working on a plan for closing the mill and closing aspects of its treatment system,” Sauer said. “They have already spoken to us about their discharge permits. They will meet with us throughout the winter and next spring to work on a plan that’s acceptable to them and that we can say meets our regulatory and permit requirements.”

IP’s options include turning the pond system over to another industrial or municipal user, converting some of it into a protected area for waterfowl, or tearing the berms down and restoring it to agricultural use.

“What they do with the ponds is up to IP,” Sauer said. “The options really do run the gamut at this point. But whatever is decided, it’s going to be what’s environmentally and legally the safest choice and the most acceptable.”

Kay King, president of the Morehouse Economic Development Corp., said Monday that the former IP paper mill in Bastrop, La. — which was shut down by IP last year — also used a pond system for its wastewater. The ponds are still there.

“We are interested in developing that area,” King said of the two square-shaped retention ponds outside of town. “We really don’t have anything on that right now, as to how we can use those. But we are looking at that possibility.”

Turner said he wouldn’t mind seeing the Union Camp Holding Pond converted to natural uses.

“That was a big draw for years,” Turner said. “There were a lot of people that would duck hunt over there in that big pond. I don’t know if they still do or not, (but) that drew people from out of state. It was awesome duck hunting over there, from what I’m told.”

He added, “I would be happy just to see them block it off so that it wouldn’t go to the Blackwater River, (but) you would have to have an overflow in case of a storm. They could turn it into a waterfowl or wildlife refuge. A lot of birds nest over there.”