Down by the Old Mill

A band of East Texas environmentalists takes on a polluting paper plant and proves that might doesn't always make right, even in a company town

At Dian Avriett's Lunch Box, the homespun signs for Christmas cakes and 22-pound holiday hams are easier to spot than the two small holes in the plate-glass windows at the front of the shop.

One is located behind the drive-up doughnut counter, the other in the dining room, near the wall of "People's Choice" award plaques bestowed on Avriett's cakes, pies and sandwiches by the hearty eaters of Lufkin.

"The police said at first that someone was hitting businesses on Timberland Drive with marbles, but I was here getting ready for a catering job and that wasn't a marble," says Avriett, who has more than a passing familiarity with guns. "I heard the report. I heard something ricochet off the icemaker and the stainless-steel table I was standing at. You can see the holes. They're nice and clean, like you'd get with a high-velocity impact."

"You wouldn't find Opie fishing by that stream," says one environmentalist of Paper Mill Creek, which carries coffee-colored wastewater from the Lufkin mill to Sam Rayburn Reservoir.
Mark Graham
"You wouldn't find Opie fishing by that stream," says one environmentalist of Paper Mill Creek, which carries coffee-colored wastewater from the Lufkin mill to Sam Rayburn Reservoir.
Doughnut-shop owner Dian Avriett rallied opposition on behalf of the lake.
Mark Graham
Doughnut-shop owner Dian Avriett rallied opposition on behalf of the lake.

Lufkin police first wrote up the late-November incident as "criminal mischief," but amended their report to call it "deadly conduct." They have no suspects.

As the leader and spokeswoman for Lufkin's recently reactivated Sierra Club chapter--no doubt one of the few in America where the chapter president is a lifelong deer hunter and members show up at meetings in caps from the Texas Trophy Hunters Association--Avriett says she is a prime target for a stray shot.

For the past two years, the 54-year-old Lufkin native has been at the vortex of one of the most strenuous environmental battles in Texas, a fight pitting a handful of environmentalists and bass fishermen against a solid wall of opponents: every political official who gathers a vote in Lufkin, from the school board to the U.S. Senate; every local business, union and civic group; the local newspaper; and one of the oldest and largest companies in town.

In this East Texas mill town, where roughly half the economy is dependent on forestry, Avriett has taken on the mill.

For 60 years, the sprawling newsprint plant on the northeast edge of town has been the dominant fixture in this county seat of 34,000 people. Locals whose names are attached to some of Lufkin's bigger streets founded it. After a series of sales and mergers beginning in the late 1970s, it is now owned by a Canadian newsprint giant, Abitibi-Consolidated Inc., which bought the mill earlier this year. Since the end of the Great Depression, log trucks have rumbled out of the surrounding Southern pine forests and deposited their treetop loads at the mill. There they are ground into pulp--cooked, bleached and formed into broad rolls of newsprint--as much as 1,000 tons of comic sections and sports pages a day. The Houston Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News and at least a portion of the very publication in your hands are printed on paper from Lufkin.

Papermaking is a dirty, resource-intensive process, and Lufkin's mill has not been at the head of the class in adopting the latest pollution controls. For at least 15 years, state regulators have allowed the plant to discharge wastewater that state biologists say has "a significant adverse impact" on the streams into which it flows. The discharge--a tepid, coffee-colored, lightly foaming brew--fills a 10-foot-wide stream that originates at the plant, fittingly named Paper Mill Creek. The flow, which locals call the blackwater, can reach up to 15 million gallons a day.

Eight miles northeast of the mill, the creek meets up with the muddy, slow-flowing Angelina River and the headwaters of the Sam Rayburn Reservoir. Impounded in the mid-1960s, the federally owned reservoir is the largest body of water in the state, a legendary bass fishery that hosts national tournaments.

A couple of devoted fishermen--retired NASA engineer Walt West, who lives on the lake, and Houston housing contractor Ed Parten--were among the first people outside government regulatory circles to begin paying attention to the mill and its effects on Rayburn's water quality. "We started noticing in 1996 a decline in aquatic vegetation, and sores began appearing on the fish," Parten says. After bass began dying by the thousands in the summer of 1998--and state fisheries officials blamed the problem on fishermen themselves--Parten and West used state open-records laws to rummage through files of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the state equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency.

What they discovered led them to believe the paper mill was at least part of Rayburn's problem. They found state reports dating back to the mid-1980s showing unacceptable emissions by the mill. The fishermen adopted a more strident tone when they became convinced that the TNRCC was far too pro-business to be trusted to protect the lake. Policymakers at the top were apparently ignoring warnings by lower-level environmental inspectors about the mill's pollution.

When Avriett allied herself with Parten and West early last year, becoming one of a small handful of people within the city limits to take the plant's environmental record to task, the battle was joined. Her shop on the main drag, a modest one-story place with a yellow Daylight Donuts sign across the top and a green Sierra Club sign inside the door, became the headquarters of what mill-backers quickly labeled "environmental extremism."

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