The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality said Monday there were no negative environmental effects on the Jackson River after a “foaming issue” at the WestRock Co. mill in Covington caused discoloration in the water extending downstream into the upper James River in Botetourt County.
The waste treatment plant at the paper mill experienced an issue that required a larger than normal amount of defoamer to be added around 3 a.m. Wednesday.
The defoamer is a water-based, biodegradable, food-grade product, WestRock spokeswoman Rebecca Johnson said in an email. Residue from the defoamer had a white, filmy appearance visible on the water’s surface and the river’s water was darker than normal downstream of the mill.
The dark color comes from wood lignin, an organic material in a piece of wood that holds the fibers together, Johnson said.
Sam Hale, a water compliance manager with the department of environmental quality, said in a statement that the department was contacted Thursday and Friday and had a follow-up Monday morning with the company.
“The company continually monitors our Waste Treatment system to always protect the health of the river,” Johnson said in an email.
Employees at Twin River Outfitters in Buchanan first noticed discoloration Friday near Iron Gate, where the Jackson River meets with the Cowpasture River to form the James. Owner Dan Mays said they lost a few customers who were concerned with the water’s quality and that no one informed the outfitter what had happened to the river.
By Sunday the dark discoloration had reached Buchanan, where the business is based. Mays said paddlers could no longer see to the bottom of the river as normal. But when Mays paddled the river Monday it seemed nearly back to normal.
“Once we found out what it was we weren’t concerned,” Mays said. “It just made for a less than desirable paddling experience.”
Tests done last week by the agency found that dissolved oxygen levels downstream were well above water quality standards, Hale said.
Hale also noted the treatment plant is now operating at near normal conditions and no limits have been exceeded since Wednesday’s incident.
The mill opened a wastewater treatment plant in 1955 to clean its discharge into the Jackson River. The Jackson River downstream of the mill has had problems with higher levels of dissolved oxygen going back to the 1980s, which the company tried to address by adding cooling towers to its treatment process.
The paper mill previously had appeared on the Virginia DEQ’s Toxics Release Inventory report as one of the top polluters in the state. In the most recently released report, for 2016, the emissions in Covington are attributed to Ingevity Virginia Corp., a former MeadWestvaco Corp. subsidiary spun off as an independent, publicly traded company after the merger of MeadWestvaco Corp. and Rock-Tenn Co. in 2015.
The amount of toxic releases into water sources accounts for less than 2 percent of Ingevity’s total releases, according to the 2016 report. The Ingevity plant, located adjacent to the paper mill, most often releases chemicals into the air — about 87 percent of its total on-site releases.