It's 10 a.m., and all is quiet on the battlefront. Conditions breezy and cool, water calm. The thin, dead stumps of the Black and Amber forests poke baldly from the surface. An occasional logging truck laden with tapered trunks grinds across the Highway 147 bridge, temporarily breaking the silence. A handful of anglers sit catlike in their boats at the edges of the lake, absently observing the landscape while waiting to spring at the telltale tug of a largemouth bass.
As the setting for a showdown as epic as the OK Corral's, Sam Rayburn Reservoir seems an unlikely candidate. The 35-year-old East Texas lake provides power for the surrounding area and drinking water for Beaumont, Port Arthur, and several other cities. Its 114,500 acres offer excellent swimming, water-skiing, and boating.
All those positives pale in comparison with the one for which Rayburn is best known: as one of the best bass fisheries in the nation. Fishermen from just about everywhere converge on Rayburn from spring through fall to compete in one of the many weekend tournaments or just to hang out and enjoy the prospect of hauling in a few lunkers. Fishing pumps millions of dollars into local businesses, keeping numerous marinas, motels, restaurants, and tackle shops afloat. "The entire area depends on the lake for the economy," says Ann Thomasson-Wilson, who runs Ann's Tackle Shop in Jasper. "If we didn't have the tourism and the tournaments, this town would dry up and blow away."
The town's economy hasn't been drying up, but the lake has. The drought that has been ravaging most of Texas has dropped Rayburn more than 11 feet below its normal level and has reduced its surface area by 25 percent. Concrete shoreline retaining walls that protect house lots from erosion are now 40 yards from the water; large expanses of land once covered by the lake lie naked and exposed, littered by white patches of tiny dead shellfish.
The decline of Rayburn visible from the surface reflects what's happening below it. In 1998 a massive fish kill in the lake's southern end decimated the population of older, larger bass. Another kill followed in '99. An especially nasty outbreak of a common aquatic disease last year caused huge numbers of fish to break out in bloody lesions, spurring a state investigation. And the lake's primary vegetation, a tenacious weed called hydrilla, has shrunk from a total volume of almost 19,000 acres to less than one-third of that today.
To many who have studied the lake, the bulk of the problems in Sam Rayburn are directly attributable to the drought. When the water level is low, the water temperature rises, which in turn stresses the bass population and makes the fish susceptible to disease. Hydrilla likewise hates dramatic shifts in temperature and depth. "[The vegetation] drop was totally explained to me by a drop in the water level," says retired veterinary toxicologist Gary Van Gelder, a chemical industry researcher and bass fisherman who has studied the lake's troubles.
But Van Gelder's view differs dramatically from that of Ed Parten, an avid angler and officer in several state bass fishing organizations. Parten believes that although the drought has played a role in the lake's woes, Rayburn is in serious trouble for another, more insidious reason. "I'm convinced that pollutants are a major problem," he says.
Whether pollution has contributed to the fish kills or vegetation loss has not been proved, but water quality problems do persist. According to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission's annual list of polluted waterways, Rayburn has dangerous levels of various metals, insufficient levels of dissolved oxygen, and other flaws. The state Department of Health has warned against eating the lake's fish since 1995 because of mercury contamination, and people have been swimming at the risk of coming in contact with fecal coliform bacteria in the water.
Recently the debate has reached a new level of urgency. At the request of the Donohue Industries paper mill in Lufkin, which dumps an average of more than 15 million gallons of wastewater into the reservoir every day, the TNRCC is considering a downgrade in the water quality standard for the upper portion of the reservoir. The proposed change in standards is part of a federally mandated statewide review. This would allow the mill to discharge certain pollutants into Rayburn at rates far greater than under the current standard. Donohue has produced several studies that show the change will not damage the reservoir; without the change, company officials say, the mill will shut down and wipe 847 jobs off the tax rolls.
But if the change is approved, warn opponents, Rayburn will continue to deteriorate. "The fish will suffer," says radiation oncologist William Shelton, a Lufkin resident and bass fisherman. "All the food chain will suffer."
Donohue insists that its operation causes no harm, and that any decision about Rayburn should be based on "sound science," a buzz phrase often employed by industry in regulatory disputes. The company has launched an aggressive campaign to win support for the change in the standards, lining up a formidable crew of supporters who have written letters and appeared at hearings on the matter. The list includes the mayor of Lufkin, state legislators Drew Nixon and Jim McReynolds, the publisher of the Lufkin Daily News, and just about every influential businessman in town.
On the other side stands a loose coalition of residents, fishermen, and environmental groups that have attacked the standards change for Rayburn and other proposed downgrades as folly. The book-length bundle of revisions proposed by the TNRCC includes more than 30 downgrades, many of previously unclassified streams that will be labeled "intermediate" in quality instead of "high" or "excellent." Sound science, they say, dictates a more prudent approach to water quality issues, especially at Rayburn. "We're making Sam Rayburn our line in the sand," says Sparky Anderson, program director of Texas Clean Water Action.
Ed Parten takes the metaphor a step further: If the proposal doesn't get stopped in its tracks, he says, "We're declaring war."
Ann Thomasson-Wilson pulls a package of green rubber worms from a neatly packed shelf and hands them to a customer, who asks if the bass are biting close to shore or in deeper water. "They're shallow, honey," she says, her down-home warmth and charm evincing her East Texas origins. "I baby-honey-darling everybody," Thomasson-Wilson says. She also has a fondness for country euphemisms and salty speech. "Now don't you print that!" she says frequently during an interview.
Thomasson-Wilson has operated Ann's Tackle Shop for 13 years, but her Jasper roots go much deeper. Her family has lived in the area since the early 1900s, and she fished the Angelina River and surrounding creeks when Sam Rayburn Reservoir was still just an idea. A champion angler who learned many of her tricks on her home turf, Thomasson-Wilson has a proprietary interest in Rayburn's well-being. "I'm very defensive about my lake," she says. "I feel very strongly about people doing something to it."
Her tackle shop is a bass-fishing hub, so Thomasson-Wilson hears almost every story there is to hear about Rayburn. And since the fish kill of 1998, many of the stories have been bad: reduced catches, dead hydrilla, and diseased fish. While she believes that nature is responsible for much of that, she thinks nature had a little help. "We're willing to concede that some of the conditions are caused by the drought," she says. "But there's got to be something else."
That something, she says, is pollution from various sources, especially the paper mill. "Why do we have so much aluminum in the water?" she asks. "Why do we have so much mercury in the water? Where there's smoke, there's fire."
Fishing guide John Presley has also smelled the smoke. Last summer he heard a number of reports from swimmers of burning eyes and skin after a dip in Rayburn. "I've been swimming in that lake for 25 years," Presley says. "I've never seen it do that." In the last couple of years, Presley has noticed another disturbing phenomenon: a brown film periodically deposited on the sand. "You never used to see that, either," he says. "I think it's some kind of pollution."
Will Kirkpatrick agrees that the drought isn't the only culprit, but he doesn't believe that tainted water is to blame. Kirkpatrick, who runs a fishing school and guide service in Broaddus, says a hefty percentage of the bass deaths can be chalked up to the practice of catching the fish and releasing them later, especially in the hot summer months. If fishermen want to point the finger, he says, they should point it at themselves. "No matter how good you are with handling fish, you're gonna lose 10 percent of them," he says. Less conscientious anglers "can kill up to 60 percent."
All the talk about pollution killing vegetation and fish is bunk, Kirkpatrick says. "Fishermen don't like to admit that we do anything wrong," he says. "It's always 'he did it' or 'they did it.' Never 'we did it.'"
Then again, he admits, he can't say with certainty what combination of factors is causing the problems. "Whether I'm right or wrong, I don't know," he says. "Nobody knows."
Kirkpatrick has identified the crux of the Rayburn dilemma. Drawing an absolute cause-and-effect relationship between any single agent and the lake's shortcomings is virtually impossible. The dramatic shrinkage in hydrilla acreage, for example, certainly owes in part to the drought, as the weed is sensitive to shifts in depth and temperature and prefers stable conditions. But other East Texas lakes have experienced similar fluctuations in water level and temperature, yet their hydrilla has been reduced by a much smaller fraction. Toledo Bend, for example, which is located just 20 miles from Rayburn, has lost only 2,000 of its 20,000 acres. "It's just full of hydrilla," says Rhandy Helton, an aquatic plant biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Helton doubts that poor water quality in Rayburn accounts for the difference, but that's as far as he'll go. "We don't know," he says. "We just can't be definitive."
After the second fish kill, lab tests determined that almost all of the dead bass were infected with largemouth bass virus. The virus, which has caused bass kills in some other lakes in the Southeast and in Texas (including Lake Fork near Dallas), opportunistically attacks stressed fish. Similarly, the lesions that appeared en masse last year at Rayburn were caused by Epistylus, an organism typically present in freshwater lakes that does most of its damage to weakened or injured fish. But instead of providing answers, those diagnoses raised a different question: What caused the stress?
In a December 10 letter responding to concerns about one of the Rayburn fish kills, TNRCC Executive Director Jess Saitas noted the complexity of the issue. "The TNRCC and other state resource agencies have investigated possible causes of this fish kill; however, a single cause for the kill has not been identified," Saitas wrote. "The water temperature at the time was unusually hot, and this certainly stressed the fish, although other factors contributed to the kill." A June 7 Texas Parks and Wildlife press release was a bit more specific: "Epistylus is most often associated with conditions of poor water quality."
Given Rayburn's status as a repeat standards offender, it would be hard to dismiss poor water quality as a possible perpetrator. The TNRCC's latest list of polluted water bodies, known as the 303(d) list, isn't final. But it indicates that Rayburn has several significant problems: high concentrations of aluminum, low dissolved oxygen levels, mercury in fish tissue, and areas that are too acidic or too alkaline. Previously, Rayburn has been listed for lead and fecal coliform bacteria in violation of the state standard.
Rayburn also appears prominently on a TNRCC "concerns" list, which carries less regulatory weight than the state's formal list of polluted waterways. The concerns include excessive levels of oil and grease, manganese, and arsenic in the sediments. Other troubling water quality data has also been collected, but not in sufficient amounts to warrant inclusion on a list.
It's these lists that anglers and environmentalists cite when arguing the point that Rayburn has a problem beyond the drought. Added together or individually, says Texas Sierra Club Director Ken Cramer, the contaminants could be causing harm to the bass and other aquatic life in Rayburn. "The problems are caused by stress on the fish, and pollution causes stress," Cramer says, "so it's not a great leap of faith."
Proving it may not be feasible, as those who argue that Rayburn is in great shape readily point out. But disproving it is equally impossible, which means people like Ann Thomasson-Wilson have to rely on common sense and experience for direction. Those, she says, have led her to an inescapable conclusion: "We've got to stop the pollution."
The Donohue Industries paper mill dominates the landscape east of Lufkin much as it has dominated the social and economic picture in the community since it opened in 1940. Trucks and forklifts wind through its jumble of buildings and stacks; guards at each gate check credentials. The Canadian-based corporation has begun an aggressive $230 million modernization of the mill that will improve its effluent and, as the company is quick to point out, pump an infusion of cash into the always struggling East Texas economy.
Inside an administration building, company spokesman Seth Kursman is eager to explain Donohue's position on Sam Rayburn. The company is not seeking a downgrade of the water quality standard, he says, though the TNRCC and Texas Parks and Wildlife label it just that. Rather, Donohue wants the TNRCC to give Rayburn the designation that the section of the lake near the mill should have had in the first place. In addition, Kursman wants to make it perfectly clear that the paper mill had nothing to do with any of Rayburn's misfortunes, including the big 1998 fish kill. "No one from a regulatory standpoint has ever pointed a finger at this operation or said that this mill contributed in any way, shape, or form to that incident," Kursman says.
Exactly where all the contaminants identified by the TNRCC in Rayburn came from is open to debate, since a variety of industrial and natural byproducts manage to find their way into the reservoir. Some of the fecal coliform came from sewage treatment plants that discharge their effluent into the bayous that feed Rayburn. Some came from poultry farms farther upstream and some from critters that inhabit the woods surrounding the lake. Similarly, a fraction of the metals found in Rayburn occur naturally in the waters of East Texas; others may come from storm-water runoff.
But of the pollutants that have been identified as among the most troublesome in Rayburn, the largest single source is clear: Donohue. The mill discharges more than one million pounds of pollutants annually, more than double that of any other facility in Angelina County. In the past two years alone, Donohue has dumped about 400,000 pounds of aluminum, a by-product of the milling process, into Paper Mill Creek, which flows into the Angelina River and then connects with the northwestern arm of Rayburn. In that same period Donohue has been depositing an average of more than a ton of oxygen-depleting material into the creek every day. And according to EPA figures, tons of manganese have flowed annually into Paper Mill Creek courtesy of Donohue.
Donohue chief engineer Charles Hughes won't speculate whether the mill's discharges have contributed to the high levels of manganese and aluminum and low levels of dissolved oxygen found in its neck of the lake. He says it "would take a lot of scientific study to really nail down" the impairments on Rayburn.
The point is moot as long as Donohue stays within the limits set in its discharge permit, because those limits are based on the assumption that the lake can assimilate a certain amount of various pollutants without damage to the ecosystem. On the other hand, the reason Donohue has been pushing to change the state standards for Rayburn is because the mill hasn't been meeting the limits for aluminum and biological oxygen demand (or BOD, any material that depletes oxygen levels). Not that the company has been doing anything illegal -- the mill has been operating on a variance to its permit since 1994.
The variance gives Donohue the right to dump unlimited amounts of aluminum into Paper Mill Creek instead of the 119 pounds per day in the permit; the company's own reports show the mill has discharged an average of about 550 pounds per day since January 1998. Similarly, the permit allows daily discharges of 2,349 pounds of oxygen-depleting materials during the cooler half of the year and only 626 pounds during the hotter months, when the oxygen levels in the lake are naturally depleted. The variance allows Donohue to put 2,900 pounds of oxygen-depleting materials into Rayburn year-round, and the company has averaged more than 2,000 pounds a day the past two years.
This assumes Donohue's reports are accurate, since the TNRCC relies almost exclusively on company data for enforcement purposes. That may not be a good idea, however, as the most recent state inspection conducted at the mill indicates. Of the 11 inspection categories in the November examination, Donohue received unsatisfactory ratings in five, including lab conditions and the storage and handling of chemicals.
Regardless, when the overhaul is completed, the mill will discharge about half its current amount of oxygen-depleting materials and will reduce other pollutants as well. But the aluminum discharge will remain the same, and Donohue still needs the standards change to be in compliance for oxygen-depleting materials. Several consultants back the company's claim that it simply can't lower its discharge of those materials any further and stay in business.
The proposal to change the standards actually predates Donohue's ownership of the mill, which it bought from Champion International Corp. in 1997. Champion was granted the variances on the promise of conducting studies that would show the lake could handle higher levels of both pollutants and not suffer for it. Champion paid engineering firms to do two studies, one for aluminum and one for dissolved oxygen, and both came out the way Champion hoped. The studies remain the basis for the proposed changes, which the TNRCC has now recommended, and it's the studies that Donohue is referring to when company officials speak of "sound science."
They speak of it often. "I think it's absolutely imperative that we base any decisions on sound science," mill spokeswoman Debbie Johnston stated at a March meeting in Lufkin to discuss the draft of the TNRCC list of polluted water bodies. "We believe that decisions of this magnitude should be made on facts and science -- not on emotional rhetoric with no basis," reads a company fact sheet. "Please, consider the facts...not fiction," implores a full-page Donohue ad in the Lufkin Daily News.
Despite this posture, not every scientist who has looked at the studies agrees that they're entirely sound. In fact, it appears that the debate among scientists at several state and federal agencies has been contentious. The TNRCC may have given its official imprimatur, but even within that agency there is no consensus. In an internal memo written shortly after the dissolved oxygen study was released, TNRCC field investigator Jo English stated flatly that the conclusions within it weren't justified -- using the study's own data. "The request for an exemption to the dissolved oxygen standard should be denied," English wrote. "The documentation...does not support their conclusion that a downgrade...is warranted."
Asked to comment on the various criticisms of the studies voiced by English and others, the agency did not have much to offer. "I'm a little skittish about commenting in detail on the memos," says Jim Davenport, who heads the water quality standards team. Still, he says, it would not be unusual to have different interpretations of the findings. "We recognize that in this study, like any other, there's some variability in the results," Davenport says.
English declined to be interviewed but did pass a message through an agency spokesman. "I stand by the memo," she said, "but I don't want to talk about it anymore."
Until recently, the position of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on Rayburn had been clear. Like Jo English, at least one department scientist disagreed with Donohue that the facts speak for themselves. In a 1996 letter to the TNRCC, Andrew Labay of the department's water quality branch criticized the Champion study on several counts, concluding that "current waste water treatment practices are not protective of water quality in [Rayburn]."
Last August, Texas Parks and Wildlife Senior Director of Aquatic Resources Larry McKinney offered the TNRCC preliminary comments on the proposed standards revisions. Noting that no definitive cause for the fish kills and disease in Rayburn had been identified, McKinney wrote that "it would be imprudent to lower the standard until these issues are further investigated and resolved." Until that time, he wrote, "we are strongly opposed to the proposed downgrade."
But Parks and Wildlife's latest messages have been mixed. In a March 7 meeting held with Ed Parten and other representatives from angler groups to discuss Rayburn, McKinney and Parks and Wildlife Executive Director Andy Sansom told the assemblage they were against the proposed downgrade and any others in the state -- at least according to the anglers. "McKinney told me that Parks and Wildlife was opposed to lowering water quality standards on Sam Rayburn and any other body of water," recalls Dave Stewart, president of two Texas bass fishing organizations.
The week before the department issued its final comments on the changes, McKinney told the Houston Press, the Dallas Observer's sister paper, that he had been speaking universally, not specifically about Rayburn. "In a general sense, lowering water quality standards is something we are opposed to." Although the department may oppose the changes for other reasons, McKinney said, "we are not likely to oppose it on water quality grounds."
While the final comments don't approve of the downgrade, they don't outright oppose it, either. Citing both the English memo and the Labay letter, Texas Parks and Wildlife stated that the information provided by Donohue had several deficiencies that collectively argued for caution. The comments offer several compromise positions, such as making the standard change temporary pending further review.
More than anything, McKinney's odd ping-pong act reflects the political reality of the issue: No matter what position Parks and Wildlife or any other agency takes, a lot of people are going to be angry, and repercussions are inevitable. The proposed standards changes cover the entire gamut of water quality regulations laid out in two thick volumes, few of which concern Rayburn. But most of the attention has been focused on the handful that deal with the lake. At a packed March 21 meeting in Austin to hear public comment on the whole package, almost every speaker talked about Rayburn. "This is a delicate situation," McKinney said glumly.
Evidence of its delicacy abounds. Three TNRCC sources say that politics played a role in the process, though they would not speak on the record. Documents that may shed light on the internal debate were withheld. But a description of those documents, with references to "sensitive matters" and "the pros and cons of various options," suggests that the ramifications of any position the TNRCC might take were understood.
Whichever way the final decision comes down, the effects may spread beyond the Texas border. Governor George W. Bush is perceived by many as weak on the environment, and downgrading the standards for Rayburn may be seized upon by Democrats in his presidential race as yet another example. Conversely, rejecting the standard change -- if Donohue isn't bluffing -- will result in the mill shutting down and economic grief for the region, a move that might not be justified by the existing data. In addition, Donohue recently announced a pending consolidation with Canadian paper giant Abitibi-Consolidated in a deal valued at $7.1 billion, and the outcome of the standards wrangle could affect the negotiations.
One solution to the dilemma seems obvious: Collect more data, since what little data exists is decidedly mixed. But although the various agencies with a dog in the fight have had ample opportunity to study the issues in detail, relatively little has been done since Champion first proposed the standards revisions years ago. The Champion studies were based on a limited number of samples, but no independent inquiry has been done to double-check their findings. The TNRCC's draft list of polluted water bodies is based on just a few test results, but the agency hasn't conducted enough research to determine the true extent of any water quality problems.
As is often the case with the TNRCC, the problem is not the will, but the way. The agency is strapped for resources and doesn't have the ability to fund expensive studies or to embark on an ambitious data collection project.
In the wake of the fish kills and the Epistylus outbreak, Parks and Wildlife put together a task force to investigate the causes. According to a department press release, "the task force will initiate a comprehensive assessment of potential water quality impairment at Sam Rayburn." In addition, the release promised, "regular progress reports will be made available to all interested parties."
That was 10 months ago. The task force recently presented a report to McKinney to help him craft the agency's comments, but that was the group's first communication since its formation. "The regular reports were not received," says Jack Ralph, who directs Parks and Wildlife's inland spills and kills program and oversaw the task force. As for the group's mission as described in the press release, Ralph laughs. "That's a hoot," he says. "There's no way that we've got the staff to complete that task."
Walt West eases his 1996 Skeeter 202 bass boat into a cove south of the 147 bridge, dips a rod into the water and pulls it out. He repeats the action several times until he lands a sickly-looking green strand. "Hydrilla," he says. "It's in bad shape." West navigates to several points farther south, each time casting for hydrilla. The farther south he goes, away from the paper mill, the fresher and more abundant the plant appears.
A retired NASA engineer and bass enthusiast, West has been fishing since he was 11. He and his wife bought a place on Sam Rayburn in 1988 and eventually moved there permanently. When he first arrived, he says, "I didn't know dissolved oxygen from doodley-squat."
But like many anglers, West became alarmed when the fishing dropped off dramatically after the 1998 fish kill. "It was just atrocious," he says.
West became something of an information vacuum, collecting documents from state agencies, anecdotes from fishing organizations, tournament results, and whatever else he could find. Nothing he found dissuaded him from his feeling that Rayburn was in trouble, and he found sympathetic ears in Ed Parten and other influential bass fishermen. Parten pitched the case to environmental organizations, which were already looking skeptically at the state's standards revisions. "We got the attention of the enviros," says Parten, who owns a Houston construction company and hardly comes off as a prototypical tree hugger. "All of a sudden, we realized how many things we had in common."
Parten, Dave Stewart, and others put together a coalition of fishermen and environmental and health groups they call SMART (Sensible Management of Aquatic Resources Team). With a combined membership of more than 300,000, the organization has potential clout, the full weight of which Parten says will be brought to bear in the fight over Rayburn. "We're ready to play hardball," he says. "We didn't get into this thing to let somebody shit on us."
Don't expect Donohue and its allies to roll over, however. The company has far more resources at its disposal to wage a battle, as evidenced by the four busloads of influential Lufkinites that Donohue shipped to the public comment hearing in Austin. And with $230 million at stake, the company isn't likely to accept defeat. "It's gonna get ugly," says EPA toxicologist Phillip Jennings, who is involved with the agency's review of the standards changes.
Everyone involved believes the struggle will be a protracted one. Even if the TNRCC approves the changes, it'll have to get a federal OK. "This is far from over," says Jennings, who has a personal as well as professional interest: His grandfather worked at the mill, and he has fished Rayburn with his son. "EPA has to tell the state if the [rationale for the changes] is acceptable. We're going to look at it very carefully, because we are concerned."
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And no matter which way the regulatory winds blow, the case is likely to move to a different venue in the end. "There's no doubt in my mind it'll end up in court," says Jack Yates, who directs the Texas Association of Bass Clubs and is on record against the changes.
Yates is conflicted about how to resolve the mess, though he's adamant about protecting Rayburn. His stand has cost him lifelong friendships. Members of his family have worked at the mill, and he knows how important it is to the people of Lufkin. "I'll be the first to tell you, that paper mill has to stay there," he says. "Killing that paper mill is not an option, but we need clean water."
Had the TNRCC, the mill, the anglers, and anyone else with a stake in Rayburn worked together on a solution, Yates believes, a compromise might have been reached. That should have happened long ago, however, and it may be too late. "There's got to be an answer out there that both sides can live with," he says. "But they've waited so long, they probably don't have time."
If that's true, Yates laments, both sides are gonna lose. "There's no winning to this."