IP groundwater permit faces uncertain future

Published 8:45 am Wednesday, December 23, 2009

FRANKLIN—Although International Paper Co.’s permit to withdraw millions of gallons of groundwater every day will expire at the end of the year, officials believe the company will receive permission to continue drawing water until the paper mill closes in the spring.

When IP stops pumping, it could take a decade for the aquifer to fully recover.

Whitney Katchmark, senior regional geologist with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, told the Southampton County Board of Supervisors Monday that IP has the largest groundwater withdrawal permit in the Hampton Roads region. The company is allowed to withdraw 37 million gallons per day, and took 33 million gallons per day in 2008.

“To give you some perspective, last year IP used the same amount of water as the City of Virginia Beach,” Katchmark said, adding that DEQ groundwater withdrawal permits are good for 10 years and that IP made a request to renew theirs in the spring.

“They’ve got all of the paperwork in place,” Katchmark said. “The state hasn’t heard anything from (IP) in terms of rescinding that request, so they are in the queue to get a new groundwater permit.”

Katchmark said groundwater withdrawal permits cannot be sold, but they can be transferred to another facility owner provided they perform the same type of business. That prospect seems extremely unlikely, however, since IP has already ruled out the possibility of paper production at the Franklin mill once it closes.

“While IP has filed for a new application, it is unclear whether a new permit would be issued to IP given their closure announcement,” DEQ official Meade Anderson said in a Dec. 17 report to Isle of Wight County officials. “The most likely scenario would be an administrative continuation of the current permit until IP shuts down.”

Katchmark concurred, saying, “DEQ doesn’t want to take water away from anyone, so they will probably administratively continue it. They’ve had one or two other (groundwater users) come up (for renewal) like this, and they administratively continued it.”

But Katchmark admitted that she didn’t know for certain what DEQ would decide.

“I don’t know what they would do, to be honest,” she said. “DEQ theoretically should evaluate IP, even if they continue to operate the way they had been. DEQ said they would look at the technical criteria this time around.”

Katchmark said IP never went through a technical evaluation for its groundwater withdrawal permit. Rather the company was grandfathered into the system. Its permit was based on historic use.

Asked if DEQ would issue a similar permit today based solely on a technical evaluation, Katchmark said, “It would be very unlikely.”

Said Anderson: “Any request for a groundwater withdrawal permit would be subject to today’s permitting requirements. The Potomac Aquifer is significantly stressed in this region in large part from this withdrawal, and this condition will impact the amount of water that could be provided.”

An HRPDC model of the Middle Potomac Aquifer, which includes the entire Hampton Roads region, shows that underground water levels are at least 120 feet lower in the City of Franklin and adjacent parts of Southampton and Isle of Wight counties because of IP’s withdrawals.

Groundwater levels are at least 40 feet lower for the bulk of Isle of Wight and also the cities of Suffolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Norfolk. In James City and York counties the groundwater level is at least 20 feet lower.

“We’re expecting the water levels to rebound and start to rise, but slowly,” Katchmark said. “There will be some initial increase (once IP stops pumping), but it may take 10 years before the system comes completely back up to where it would be if International Paper had never existed.”

But even with a recharged aquifer, groundwater levels would still be under stress because of over allocations elsewhere, Katchmark said, adding that local governments should not expect all of the water that IP was taking to be available for their own groundwater withdrawal permits.

“The resource is somewhat stretched,” she said. “(DEQ is) going to continue to have a little bit of trouble issuing permits because they are going to have to carefully look at each proposal.”