Looking for IP’s ‘Monster Under the Bed’

Following lengthy criticism of local press coverage concerning the environmental impacts International Paper’s operation has on Perdido Bay, a pair of Escambia County commissioners are paying to conduct additional water tests in an effort to verify the company’s own testing.

“Last year, every single sample that they took, we had no problems with exceedences that would have required a notification about swimming or a notification about consuming seafood,” said Commissioner Jeff Bergosh during the commission’s Thursday evening meeting. “People still don’t believe it, they’d want to believe that the bay is on fire and that fish are dying. We’re just not seeing that. The science is not showing that.”

Bergosh Offended by Cartoon

Bergosh initially waded into the IP issue earlier in the day, during the board’s morning agenda review session, with a scathing review of Pensacola News Journal cartoonist Andy Marlette’s weekend cartoon that incorporated the recent death of a dog that had been swimming in Eleven Mile Creek, near IP’s wetlands discharge area.

“Our local cartoonist put the dog, dead, right by the river and then right next to the river, he’s got a big sludge pipe coming into Eleven Mile Creek,” Bergosh said.

The commissioner said that IP’s discharge was actually located downstream of where the dog had been swimming and died. He employed a number of adjectives to describe Marlette’s cartoon: “disgusting and dishonest and disingenuous,” as well as “tasteless,” “lazy” and “sloppy.”

In an effort to prove that Perdido Bay was environmentally sound, Bergosh said that he would spend some of his discretionary funding to follow behind IP and conduct redundant testing in Perdido Bay. The county’s test samples would then be sent to two separate labs in order to have the results independently verified and then held up against the company’s own results.

“People wanna know, I wanna know, let’s get to the bottom of it,” Bergosh said. “But no more looking for monsters under the bed if they’re not there. Right? If there’s no monster under the bed, we can’t imagine one there.”

Underhill Drinks the Water

Commissioner Doug Underhill, who said that Perdido Bay had experience “phenomenal” improvements since the paper company began discharging into wetlands, described local press coverage of the issue as “grossly inaccurate” and offered to split the cost of water testing with Bergosh.

“It’s going to take a generation, maybe more, to correct the sins of the past, but we are certainly on the right path,” Underhill said.

Commissioner Underhill relayed how he recently took to social media in an effort to counter balance what he viewed as inaccurate coverage of the issue.

“I got in a boat the other day, went up to where that outfall comes into Perdido Bay, shot a Facebook Live video, took a glass of water and drank it,” Underhill said.

“I don’t know if I’ll go that far, Doug,” laughed Bergosh, who will be touring IP’s facility, wetlands and testing sites today.

“I will, because I’ve seen the numbers,” Underhill replied. “I know how clean that water is by the time it gets into Perdido Bay.”

International Paper is currently in the process of securing a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, operating under a 2010 permit as it attempts to satisfy environmental standards. The state expects the company to apply for site-specific alternative criteria, or a SSAC, in an effort to essentially lower the thresholds the company must meet. Currently, IP routinely fails quarterly water tests required by FDEP, exceeding the limits on pH, specific conductance (sodium), and dissolved oxygen; there are also indications that there are issues with turbidity and insect toxicity.