Down by the Old Mill

"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

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."

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."  

Extreme pressure on Avriett was soon to follow.

Dian Avriett's work stretches most days from before dawn to well past dark. A catering job, the employees' Christmas party at the Livewell Athletic Club, had kept her late on a recent Sunday night, and it was past 8 p.m. before she could break away and talk.

Ordering a beer and a burger "all the way" at a local restaurant, she landed a big ring of keys on the table, tucked her trail-running shoes behind her stool and settled in to tell how she became the most controversial woman in town.

"I grew up around here, out in the country. I always liked the woods. Liked to hunt and fish. I couldn't imagine living in a place like Dallas," she says, her freckled cheeks, blue eyes and pronounced accent serving as ample evidence of her rural East Texas roots.

She had been a member of the Sierra Club's Piney Woods chapter in the 1980s, when the issue of the day was logging in East Texas' national forests. Once the logging stopped, the air went out of the local group, and Avriett went on with her life.

At the time, she was launching her own business, a new start after a divorce and a long stint as a district manager for Frito-Lay. "I started out with a roach coach, you know, those trucks that go around to the plants at lunch." From there she took on a few catering jobs, opened her doughnut shop and cafe, and then began selling cakes, pies and cookies drawn from some of her grandmother's recipes: super-sweet confections with names like Nut-N-Special, Banana Split and Orange Blossom Special.

By the late 1990s, Avriett's business grew to become the largest caterer in town, with a staff of 18 and a heavy schedule of lunches and banquet dinners: the Rotary Club's Monday meetings, the public school system's employee banquet, fishing tournaments and employee gatherings at businesses large and small. The work took Avriett into a lot of places connected to the forestry industry, including the paper mill. "I had a pretty good business with them," she says.

That was, until early 2000, when she became the local spokeswoman for a coalition of people who didn't like the mill's solution to its water pollution problem. "Nobody else wanted to get in front of the cameras," she says. "I'm the loudmouth. The PR person. I ain't scared of the devil. That's how I became the one."

She readily concedes that West and Parten "got the ball rolling," poring over myriad studies and permit requests and getting up to speed on the science. But she is the one who got them together under one roof and put out a spread.

At the plant's urging, the state had proposed downgrading the water-quality standard for the portion of Sam Rayburn nearest Paper Mill Creek.

The change would have decreased the amount of cleanup the mill was required to do. Already, the mill had been granted extensions to its permit and allowed to operate without upgrading its treatment plant. While environmentalists and the mill's chief engineer disagree about precisely what the plant is putting out and its effect on the lake's fish, everyone agrees the plant was emitting too much ammonia, aluminum and oxygen-depleting organic matter to be allowed to continue operating under current federal standards.

"The paper mill had been telling the community for years, 'There's nothing wrong with that water. The color is just from the wood. It's OK. You can eat the fish out of that river.' I really believed it," Avriett says. "I made the assumption the EPA was watching out for us with the clean air and water acts. I couldn't have been more wrong."

After getting together with West and Parten and a few business owners from 55 miles away in Jasper, the center of the tourist fishing trade, Avriett became the only dues-paying member of the Angelina County Chamber of Commerce to come out against the mill on the water-standard downgrade, which the mill had cast as a struggle for its very survival.

Not only that, she was appearing on local television, leading the charge.

To fix the mill's position in Lufkin and to get an idea how its owners have viewed themselves over the years, a visit to the recently remodeled Texas Forestry Museum is a good place to start. The mill is one of the main supporters of the nonprofit that runs the museum, and more than half of the floor space is given over to an exhibit on the Southland Paper Mill, which was its original name.  

Backed by Southern newspaper publishers such as E.M. Dealey, then-vice president of The Dallas Morning News, and financed with a $3.4 million loan from the Reconstruction Finance Committee, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs, the mill was a technological marvel back in 1939. Engineers for the first time had figured out how to make paper from East Texas' native pines.

Labor was scarce when the mill was finished at the outset of World War II, and 250 German POWs were sent there to work. Southland purchased 130 more, paying the government $5,328 for their labor, according to one of the more interesting exhibit plaques.

The Southland Mill room features a few dioramas of the papermaking process--sequences of chippers and digesters and beaters and mixers and schematics of wetwood pulp on the way to the massive papermaking machines. But more than once, it underlines the tide of prosperity the mill brought to town. "In addition to providing higher wages and a better standard of living, the mill introduced East Texas to many luxuries they could not find elsewhere," the exhibit states. It emphasizes the point in another plaque as well: "For the first time in East Texas history, a large number of people had extra money to spend on luxuries and novelty items."

The mill takes credit for introducing sick leave, health insurance and pension benefits to East Texas workers. Its history leaves out the fact that those benefits came through pressure from unions, which followed the experienced paper workers from Canada and the industrial Midwest who came to the mill. (Union activity is mentioned only once in the exhibit, in reference to a major strike for higher wages in 1965. "According to Dr. George L. Clarke, vice president of the mill at the time, the strike was intentionally prolonged for seven weeks in order to deter the workers from striking again," visitors are told. "Nothing was gained by the employees, but a great deal was lost." The one-sided account more than hints that fighting the company is futile and that strikes only hurt striking workers.)

Another plate points out that the mill is Lufkin's largest taxpayer and employer, although that fact is a bit out of date. Today, Lufkin Industries, a tractor-trailer and oil-field equipment maker, is larger. Still, a city economic study says 12 percent of Lufkin school taxes come from the mill.

There's a lot about commerce in the exhibit, but no mention of environmental issues and only a single reference in the entire museum to the "cut and run" timber practices that stripped huge swaths of the 14 million-acre forest in the industry's early days. Timber barons in the late 1880s moved in from Ohio and Pennsylvania when forests there ran out. A group of them make up the museum's Hall of Fame.

"We are hoping to go with more about that in the future," museum director Carol Riggs says of the environmental concerns. "Our exhibits have been all the gee-whiz tools and equipment. How it's done."

As for the mill's environmental record, she says, "I think local people are understanding that things are being done to make the problem better. They're doing everything they can to upgrade the mill. I don't think people are unconcerned."

A bigger concern, though, was the prospect of Lufkin losing 650 jobs if the mill closed, which is what mill managers said would happen if the water-quality downgrade was not approved. The Lufkin Daily News, which editorialized in favor of the mill, printed full-page "Help Us Save Our Mill" advertisements paid for by the company. The ads labeled opponents' views as "inflammatory comments" and "knee-jerk reaction to rumor."

The ads rankled Ed Parten, the Houston fisherman, who spent thousands of dollars of his own money to print fliers attempting to refute the company's claims. He and West say the local paper declined to print their letters to the editor and op-ed pieces and often relegated their views to a paragraph or two at the bottom of stories about the mill. Nobody seemed to care, for instance, that West had unearthed a 1996 memo from a TNRCC field investigator that contained a number of bombshells: that the mill's aluminum emissions were heavy enough to be considered toxic, that the Angelina River upstream of the mill pollution was an "exceptional habitat up to the confluence with Paper Mill Creek"; that the mill's requests for special exemptions "should be denied."  

"It was almost like the old company-town scenario where one guy owns the plant and the company store. A lot of businesses here are related to the paper mill or dependent on the paper mill," Parten says. "We didn't want to hurt their business. We wanted to protect another resource that is equal or greater in value. Hundreds if not thousands of people who live in a five-county area make their living off Sam Rayburn."

A few days after she appeared on television, speaking out against the water downgrade, Avriett started hearing the boycott rumors.

At the mill, signs went up on the bulletin boards urging workers to stay away from her doughnut shop. "There were some individuals who did that, but never anything by the management," says Charles Hughes, Abitibi's chief engineer. "As a matter of fact, Carl [Wright, the mill manager] put out a letter saying we would not participate. We wanted to argue it on the facts."

"People got fairly aggravated," adds Janet Price, the mill's technical services manager. She says hotheaded talk of retribution did ripple through the plant's rank and file.

Whether it was policy or not, Avriett says the mill never used her catering service again. Beyond that, the company didn't need to take an official stance on how to handle the opposition. Other influential people around town took it upon themselves to turn up the pressure.

"Now boycott's a nasty word," says 67-year-old Murphy George, the retired owner of a regional food wholesale company with a large operation in Lufkin. "I'm the chairman of the Economic Development Partnership, which is comprised of all of the businesses in Angelina County...When you're fooling with economic development, you're hurting a lot of people. So the chamber and the partnership all resolved that there is no way we can support anyone who goes against our economy.

"She tried hard to bust the paper mill. It wasn't a boycott. We just told the businesses in the partnership that we can't support her anymore. We have other people here who cater. It's not a boycott. It's back-scratching."

The walls of George's paneled Lufkin office, from where he's been doing business since 1956, are covered with signed photos of him with former Governor George W. Bush, U.S. Senators Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, and others he has supported over the years.

"Murphy George, he's on every board in Lufkin, and he went everywhere telling people not to use me," Avriett says. "He and Tom Manskey, the chamber [of commerce] director."

They got some results, Avriett says, although not as many as they would have liked. "I lost everyone who did business directly with the mill," she says. But beyond that, the pressure and petty slights did little more than make people uncomfortable.

"It must have been in September of 2000. I was to do a catering job at the Texas State Forest Festival. A local bank had booked me," Avriett recalls. "Well, the day before, the lady at the bank called. It turned out Tom Manskey had called and told her he knew it was too late to cancel me, but he asked her at least that I not show up. When the lady called me she was crying. I asked, 'What in the world is wrong?' She told me, 'This is the hardest thing I have done in my life,' and went on to tell me about Manskey. I burst out laughing. I said, 'No big deal.' I got some of my other crew to handle it. I personally didn't go.'"

At her shop, where a lot of mill workers used to stop for breakfast or takeout sandwiches, some drifted back as the yearlong state and federal reviews of the proposed downgrade wore on. "A few of them asked for brown paper sacks. They didn't want the bag with my name on it," Avriett says. So she started leaving plain sacks on the counter, right next to the petitions opposing the downgrade.

Manskey says his group did not pass a formal resolution, as George says, but "some individuals have chosen to no longer support the opponents. People here were pretty upset with them."

Manskey, who moved to Lufkin from the Dallas area five years ago, says, "It amazed me--the deep and intense loyalty we have for the mill. Most of the opposition came from outside the community. I think they had to work real hard to recruit local people, you know, through the Internet, to support the environmental stand."

Walt West, the retired engineer, says he and most other active opponents of the downgrade were too removed from life in Lufkin to feel the pressure directly. "I was kind of concerned about what effect this would have on her business, but her food is real popular. People won't cut off their noses to spite their face," says West, whose career at NASA included calculating the re-entry of the Mercury space capsule and work on the Apollo moon shots.  

Still, the threat of the mill closing, a dire warning West calls part of a "well-thought-out, well-planned propaganda campaign from the get-go," caused emotions in Lufkin to run high.

West recalls going with Avriett and his wife, Nancy West, to a Mexican restaurant one night after Avriett had given a TV interview. "A guy walked up to our table and told Dian, 'You're taking food out of my baby's mouth.' I think Dian handled it pretty cool. Better than I would have. She told him, 'I don't want you to lose your job.'"

Nancy West, who busied herself in the kitchen making sandwiches as her husband related the tale, came out and gave the story another detail. "Walt was so worried about her, he'd tell her about something new he'd found. Then he'd say, 'Dian, don't do anything about this.' But she would...She has a lot of courage. She's taken a lot of flak over this."

When it was time last year for a state hearing on the water downgrade, the mill and its local backers--a group of some 250 people--loaded into four buses and two planes and headed for Austin. On the other side, "We had a little handful of us, 15 people maybe," Avriett says.

In the various biological studies used by the mill to argue for the downgrade before the TNRCC and later the EPA, the issue came down to the state of life in the Angelina River upstream from the mill. In simple terms, fish-counting. Was the river above the mill's outflow fairly clean, or was it so polluted that it couldn't sustain abundant life? If the stream was shown to be less than pristine, the regulatory process went, then the mill need not be as stringent about what it dumps in.

But counting fish in the wild is no simple thing. Studies done by the mill's consultant and the TNRCC led to conflicts over methods and results. "We believe the science was on our side. We felt we were right on the technical issues," says Charles Hughes, Abitibi's engineer.

For the company, the water-quality debate was taking place against a backdrop of a major transformation of the mill brought on by changes in the industry.

Demand for traditional newsprint has been gradually declining over the years, so the Lufkin mill was being made over, at the cost of about $330 million, to produce paper called "super-calendar." It's the higher-grade glossier paper used for color advertising inserts stuffed inside Sunday papers.

In the modernization, three of the mill's four papermaking machines were permanently shut down and replaced by a new, computerized machine occupying a new wing. With all the automation, the workforce shrank from 1,100 to 650 at full production, and it's down even more now because of the weak economy.

"About $53 million was spent entirely on environmental improvements around our pulping operation," Price says. Most significantly, the pulping and bleaching processes were redesigned to eliminate the use of chlorine. Before the changes, the Lufkin plant had the second-highest emissions of airborne chlorine in the nation, according to the EPA.

Overall, Hughes says, the change in processes reduced the mill's total air and water pollution by 40 percent.

Still, in early 2000, while the modernization was well under way, no work had started on updating the plant's water treatment plant. The mill was pushing for the downgrade instead.

Hughes says the company had planned all along to build a new $20 million water treatment plant, which would have been needed even if the downgrade was approved. In the early 1990s, when planning began, there was no technology available to allow the plant's discharge into the Angelina River to meet current regulations. A decade later, he says, new processes have been developed, but it is unclear whether they would be effective. "It's never been done," he says.

So as the regulatory battle began, the two sides thought they had cases to make.

The environmentalists, leery of the plant's foot-dragging and suspicious that regulators had given the plant far too many breaks, said it was outrageous not to push the plant to do everything it could to protect the river and Sam Rayburn downstream. The company, meanwhile, said it had made considerable progress cleaning up, but the current standards were unreasonable and impossible to attain.  

It turned out that the science, the legal basis for a decision, cut right down the middle. Studies of the Angelina River--the fish-counting--came down more or less in the middle of the question.

"Basically, the determination is...indeterminate," Texas Parks and Wildlife Director Andrew Sansom said in a letter to the EPA in August 2000. "It's a matter of interpretation."

With no clear science to guide the way, politics and biases were left to carry the day, both sides allege in various ways.

In August of last year, TNRCC's three commissioners--all former industry officials and Bush appointees--voted unanimously to lower the standards, saying the science supported their decision.

"Lamentably, this is a political game," says Sparky Anderson, director of the Texas Clean Water Coalition and a former state water pollution inspector. "The mill had a lot of support in Lufkin and in Austin. I think they flat-out decided to take the political route and try to get this through. You know, when people come in my door and tell me they want to fight something, I tell them that if you don't have enough citizen support, you're not gonna get it done."

The loss in Austin only served to energize Avriett and a growing state and national coalition of environmental groups for the last stand: a review of the state's decision by the EPA's regional office in Dallas.

"I think we had 30 groups before it was over," says Avriett, who reformed the Sierra Club's Lufkin chapter while the EPA decision was pending. Even as she was bringing on a few new opponents in town, including some real estate agents worried about property values at Sam Rayburn, a lot of people found it impossible to come out against the mill, she says. "I'd have people tell me, 'Dian, I'm with you on this, but I can't say anything about it.'"

A handful of men from one of Lufkin's poorest enclaves who fish the Angelina River for subsistence rather than sport joined and felt no reluctance to speak their minds.

"I've lived off this bottom for years," says Jimmy Laird, an affable 42-year-old, referring to the deep woods along the river where Paper Mill Creek meets the river. "I broke my back working on a rig offshore in 1985. Moved up here for the reason I could live off this bottom. I fish. I've lived off the duck, the deer, the hogs, the squirrels, the frogs. We'd catch a mess [of bass] and have big ol' fish fries, feed 20, 30 people."

Laird's unusual neighborhood, a grid of mobile homes and tiny wood cabins, was started as a subdivision in the mid-1960s that was supposed to become lakefront property when the Army Corps of Engineers finished with the lake. Instead, the area, called Rivercrest, ended up about eight miles away from the shoreline, and the developer went broke. People bought the lots for next to nothing, hauled in trailers and began living off the land.

"It gets me mad what they're putting in that water," says Laird, who says he has found mud and water in Paper Mill Creek's basin that don't smell like anything you would find in nature. "I fed my kids that fish."

In June, after almost a year of study, the EPA overturned the state's decision and issued a "findings of violation and order for compliance" against the mill.

Myron Hess, a lawyer with the National Wildlife Federation's Texas chapter, says the decision was a scientific one. "Basically, the fish population had the numbers and diversity to support our position." But at the mill, officials say politics played a role. "We lost on political issues," Hughes says. Adds Price, "I've worked for a lot of years on regulatory issues, and I think the EPA is pretty consistently reluctant to do things that are publicly controversial. It's their nature, and I don't fault them for that. They will do many things to try to avoid it. It's the nature of the process."

That was apparently the case here. A copy of the agency's legal order lists a number of violations by the mill, including discharge of water found to be "dark in color (almost black)." But rather than impose fines, the EPA negotiated a settlement and ordered Abitibi to begin work immediately on a treatment plant and bring it on line by June 2003. In the meantime, the mill was allowed to continue operating under a temporary permit.

The mill also agreed to pay $1 million for a variety of environmental projects in Lufkin, including a wetlands park, improvements to septic systems and a variety of studies on the fish in Sam Rayburn. Gregg Cooke, the EPA regional administrator, called the outcome a "win-win."  

The Lufkin environmentalists' side of the hyphen was perhaps the most sweet. They threw a big barbecue by the lake and even invited people from the mill.

"It was definitely a win," Avriett crows. "EPA went against something the TNRCC had said, when normally they go the same way. We made waves. We made big waves."

Her ally Parten says there still is a lot of study and work to be done to restore the fish population in Sam Rayburn. But the preservation of the lake and river's status as a high-quality fishery was a major first step. "We poked a lot of holes in what the mill was saying, some little, some big," he says. "Basically, we kicked their ass."

Erin Rogers, who coordinates the efforts of Texas' local Sierra Club chapters with the group's Austin office, says the Lufkin battle was big enough to get noticed beyond Texas. "People know about this all over the country," she says. "They're amazed at what they did."

In Texas, she says, it's common that local business interests, fearing economic loss, control local opinion in fights like this. But Lufkin was an extreme case. "The mill dominates so many of the civic organizations, the school board, the newspaper, this was worse than many for our side," she says. "It looked like the far end of hopelessness."

On a recent Tuesday night, about 50 people from Lufkin's recharged environmental movement met at Avriett's cafe, where a green club flag hanging outside signaled the meeting was on.

The main topic of the night was mercury, which is found in fish in Sam Rayburn and four other East Texas lakes in high enough quantities that the Texas Department of Health issued a fish consumption advisory in 1995. Although some suspect industrial air or groundwater pollution, its source is unknown.

Dr. Bill Shelton, a Lufkin oncologist and member of the club, told the group how mercury has been proven to harm the brain and nervous system of adults and children, with young children and developing fetuses particularly at risk. "We have enough of this stuff in the water [in East Texas] to keep special ed teachers in business for years," he says.

Talk turned to the general lack of knowledge about the risks and the absence of a single warning on the banks and boat ramps at Rayburn. "We have a fish market here that has a big sign out front saying, 'All fish locally caught,'" Shelton says. "Nobody knows."

Then, in what might have been the first shot in a new, multiyear struggle, Avriett informed the group that the mill has applied for a new air-quality permit, and there are plenty of issues she and the Austin office are concerned about. "I've already applied for a public hearing," she says. "We're gonna take this on."

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