Angelina county Lake Sam Rayburn

Big Pollution Problems at "Big Sam"


Lake Sam Rayburn This week, the Texas Toxic Tour takes you to beautiful Lake Sam Rayburn in East Texas. Known for excellent swimming, water-skiing, and fishing, the lake is now suffering drastically due to unchecked pollution from a paper mill. Watch our interview with avid bass fisherman, lakeside resident, and retired NASA engineer Walt West, who is fighting to keep the lake pristine not only for his own grandson, but for everyone who uses the lake for drinking water or recreation.


Pollution in Paradise

Lake Sam Rayburn is situated on the Angelina River in the Piney Woods of East Texas. Much of the lake is in the Angelina National Forest. "Big Sam" covers 114,500 acres, has 560 miles of shoreline, and an average depth of 12 feet. The aquatic vegetation, mild climate, and abundant Largemouth Bass make Lake Sam Rayburn one of the premier bass fisheries in the world.(1)

In recent years, however, concerns have arisen over threats to water quality and the health of fish in the lake by increasing development at nearby industrial and agricultural facilities which discharge pollutants into the watershed. There are currently 47 permitted facilities in the watershed.

By far the largest wastewater discharger into Lake Sam Rayburn is the Donohue Industries paper mill facility in Angelina County, which flushes 20 million gallons per day of waste water into Paper Mill Creek, which flows into the lake. Waste water from Donohue makes up 73% of the total effluent discharged into the Sam Rayburn reservoir and all its tributaries.

Audio & Video

Listen to the Lake Sam Rayburn pollution story

Featured on our interview is retired NASA engineer Walt West.

QuickTime 542 KB

Need help with media tools?

The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) recently included Lake Sam Rayburn on its list of waterways that are polluted beyond what is considered safe under the Clean Water Act. Sam Rayburn was listed because of high levels of mercury in the fish, low dissolved oxygen levels, and dissolved aluminum concentrations that "exceed the criterion established to protect aquatic life from acute exposure."(2) TNRCC had "concerns," about "ambient toxicity, ammonia nitrogen, color and odor problems" in the upper part of the lake, but noted that the agency lacked "sufficient information" to determine impairment.(3) However, the source of the problem on the upper region of the lake is undeniable to anyone that visits Paper Mill Creek--the small stream used by Donohue Industries which discharges into the upper portion of Lake Sam Rayburn.

Paper Mill Creek
Paper Mill Creek

Paper Mill Predicament

On June 1, 1998 the Canadian company Donohue bought Champion International Corporation and created Donohue Industries to own and operate its two new paper mills in Texas (one in Lufkin on the banks of Lake Sam Rayburn). With the Champion acquisition, Donohue became the second largest newsprint producer in North America.(4)

"In June of 1998, Donahue bought the paper company, in July and August we immediately started experiencing fish problems," explains Walt West. Walt describes the scene from his boat after a major fish kill and vegetation die-off in August of 1998. "They were out here by the hundreds, they were found all over the lake, [according to officials] 1,800 bass had been killed, I think that that number was grossly understated". When you have a fish kill of this nature, the fish that come to the surface that are available for counting amount to about 3% of the fish that are affected by the kill."

fish lesions

 fish lesions
Lesions on sample fish

After another fish kill in 1999 and shocking increases in diseases, lesions, and underweight fish, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department did a study which determined that there was "no conclusive evidence" as to the cause of the fish kills and decreasing fish and aquatic vegetation health, except possibly warm water and low water levels as a result of the drought.(5)

A look at Donohue's discharges for the summer of 1998 points to a different cause: a huge spike in aluminum discharges from the paper mill occurred in the month of August (see graph). The Donohue paper mill uses aluminum-based anti-coagulants in its pulp processing(6) so that its machinery won't get gummed up with the natural glues holding the wood together. TNRCC permits Donohue to discharge a maximum daily average of 119 pounds of aluminum into Paper Mill Creek. However, TNRCC has issued "variances" for Donohue, and for the last two years Donohue has greatly exceeded its permitted limit on a monthly basis, averaging closer to 600 pounds of discharged aluminum per day.(7)

chlorine inhalation hazard1998 was also an exceptional year in that it was the only year during a six year period (1994-1999) when dioxin samples were being taken that ALL of the fish tested contained detectable levels of dioxin.(8) Dioxins are highly toxic and carcinogenic by-products of paper mills that use chlorine bleaching agents.

In order to continue discharging pollutants at such high levels, Donohue realized that the water quality standards must be lowered. After being petitioned by Donohue and its allies, TNRCC began to do just that.

Changing the Laws to Fit the Crimes

Rather than implement measures for stricter enforcement of polluting facilities on the lake, TNRCC proposed weakening water quality standards for Sam Rayburn Reservoir by changing its Designated Use Standard. Currently, the reservoir is designated as "High Aquatic Use." This means that water quality must meet high federal standards in order to ensure the protection of the type of plants and animals that live there. TNRCC's proposal would reduce the Designated Use Standard of the reservoir to "Intermediate Aquatic Life" which would allow industries to pollute even more(9), yet still comply with the federal Clean Water Act guidelines. In other words, rather than force polluters to comply with existing clean water requirements, TNRCC is proposing to lower the standard itself to fit the current level of pollution.

Caught in a Net of Lies

TNRCC's decision to lower the standards instead of enforce the law came despite protests from other state and federal agencies and TNRCC staff, and was based on "evidence" contradicted by Donohue's own monitoring data.

Oxygen In Demand

TNRCC blindly accepted "studies" done by Donohue justifying increased pollution. One important study claimed that dissolved oxygen levels in the upper portion of the lake had always been low, around 3-4 parts per million. TNRCC accepted this wild claim, ignoring mountains of evidence to the contrary:

  • The US Forest Service wrote to TNRCC and warned them that the average dissolved oxygen for lakes in the area was no less than 5 parts per million and opposed TNRCC's proposed downgrade of the water quality standards.(10)

  • An internal letter authored by a TNRCC field investigation scientist asserted that "the request for an exemption to the dissolved oxygen standard should be denied...The documentation furnished by [Donohue] does not support their conclusion that a downgrade to Intermediate Aquatic Life is appropriate." (11)

  • The Texas Department of Water Resources also argued against the downgrade, explaining that its studies showed that water quality was good and dissolved oxygen was greater than 5 parts per million upstream from the paper mill.(12)

  • Texas Parks and Wildlife Department weighed in on the subject as well, arguing for the High Aquatic Life Use standard based on its studies of the fish and dissolved oxygen in the region.(13)

  • In fact, Donohue's own dissolved oxygen sampling done for dioxin tests the company is required to periodically perform show that water just upstream from the plant is in good shape with dissolved oxygen at 5 or more parts per million, but as low as 3 parts per million downstream of Paper Mill Creek.(14)

Alzheimer's for TNRCC?

TNRCC blindly accepted another Donohue study on how much aluminum the lake can handle, in order to revise Donohue's permit so that it can dump more aluminum into the creek and lake. TNRCC has proposed that Donohue be allowed to go from 119 pounds of dissolved aluminum per day to 952 pounds per day, based on Donohue's study. Coincidentally, this is just the amount Donohue is discharging now under the variance. For years, lakeside residents and bass fisherman tried to point out discrepancies in Donohue's aluminum study, to no avail. Finally, in June, 2000, the US Environmental Protection Agency stepped in to condemn Donohue's aluminum study for being filled with mistakes and misrepresentations, and has demanded that Donohue do another study, this time closely supervised by the EPA, before TNRCC implements changes in Donohue's permit.(15)

Bush Commissioners Hold the Future of Big Sam in Their Hands

On July 12, 2000 the three Commissioners of the TNRCC (all appointed by Governor Bush) will vote on final approval of the proposed changes in water quality standards.

Walt doesn't hold out much hope. "I don't know of any attempt by the TNRCC to ever ask for an increase [in water quality], it's always the other way around, they want to decrease standards for obvious reasons, to support industry."

For further reading, check out "Reeling" by Bob Burtman, Houston Press.

Join Texas PEER soon for another stop on the Texas Toxic Tour.


  1. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, "1999 Report of Sam Rayburn Task Force," March 2000, p. i. Also, see
  2. "State of Texas 1998 Clean Water Act Section 303(d) List (06/26/98)" Stream Segment #610. (Requires Adobe Acrobat reader.)
  3. Draft Texas Water Quality Concerns, January 14, 2000, p.5. Paper Mill Creek was eventually taken off the TNRCC "Concerns List" for ambient toxicity because of a technicality: since Paper Mill Creek is naturally intermittent, a special type of toxicity test was supposed to have been done on the water in it. TNRCC used an "inappropriate test" and subsequently pulled Paper Mill Creek from the list.
  4. "A short History of Donohue"
  5. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, "1999 Report of Sam Rayburn Task Force," March 2000, p. iii.
  6. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, "1999 Report of Sam Rayburn Task Force," March 2000, p. 4-5.
  7. TNRCC Regulatory and Compliance System, Waste Water Permits Monthly Effluent Reports (Self-reported, Permit #00368)
  8. From Champion/Donohue-funded reports: "Final Dioxin Monitoring in Fish Tissue 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999." Prepared by EA Engineering, Science and Technology, Inc., Carrolton, Texas. Fifteen fish representing three different species were tested each year.
  9. **Note: According to the law set out in the Texas Administrative Code Section 307.5(b)(2), if the Use Standard is downgraded, the lake will lose the shield of its Tier 2 Anti-Degradation Protections--which apply to "High" or "Exceptional" water bodies. For these bodies, ANY increase in pollution must be justified and get authorization from TNRCC, including going through a public comment process. Before any increase in pollution is allowed, TNRCC must go on record saying the agency will allow water quality to be degraded--something the agency does not like to do . Tier One Anti-Degradation Protections, which apply to "Intermediate" water bodies, are not as protective. They allow increases in pollutants without any public justification.
  10. Letter dated June 27, 1996, File Code: 2600, from Larry H. Bonner , Natural Resource Team Leader, US National Forest Service to Gloria Nasquez, TNRCC.
  11. Letter dated December 16, 1996 from Jo English, Field Investigator, Region 10, Beaumont to Earnest McFarland, Wastewater Permits Section, Agriculture and Watershed Management Division.
  12. Intensive Survey of Angelina River Segment 0611, Texas Department of Water Resources, Jack Davis, August 1985.
  13. Letter dated September 25, 1996 from Andrew A. Labay, TPWD, Environmental Quality Branch to Ms Faith Hambleton, TNRCC Water Quality Standards.
  14. Field notes from dioxin studies done for Champion/Donohue by EA Engineering, Science, and Technology Inc. show that dissolved oxygen above Paper Mill Creek was consistently greater than 5.0, and DO below Paper Mill Creek was consistently below 4.0 and usually less than 3.0.
  15. Comments to File, Donohue Industries Inc., Water Effects Ration for Aluminum, by Stephen Bainter, US EPA, Region 6.

Toxic Tour
Toxic Texas


Toxic Tour Home | TX PEER | About | National | Forums
| PEER PRESSure | Feedback | Search |

TX PEER · 4006 Speedway; Austin TX · 78751
Tel: (512) 454-8806 · 
Go to TXPEERs homepage Click to jump to the top of the page