Outrage on the Ogeechee

SOMETHING HAPPENED to the Ogeechee River in May 2011. If you are to believe the lawyers representing King America Finishing (KAF), the only major industry on the Ogeechee, the river just somehow spontaneously turned bad.

Officials with Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) estimated that 38,000 fish died, and blamed the fish kill on low flows and high temperatures that stressed the fish to the point where they became susceptible to a bacterium that is always present in the river.

Neither the facility nor the state had a good explanation for the fact that all of the fish died below the factory’s outflow pipe. No dead fish were found upstream from the facility. Along 70 miles of the Ogeechee River last May, the stench of rotting fish was overwhelming.

Exactly one year after last year’s devastating fish kill, dead fish started turning up again below the pipe. An EPD official pointed to the smaller number of fish that turned up dead this year as an indication of progress, but a lot of us were wondering how many fish are left to kill after the 2011 disaster.

The enormous King America Finishing plant is located east of Statesboro on Route 17 near Dover. They produce flame retardant fabric coatings, primarily for the defense industry.

The chemicals used in the coatings that render fabric flame retardant are supremely toxic, so the plant has its own facility on site to treat the effluent before it is dumped into the Ogeechee.

The EPD’s investigation after last year’s disaster revealed numerous violations, including shoddy reporting, malfunctioning or nonexistent monitoring equipment and dozens of instances of KAF exceeding the quantities of toxins in the effluent flowing into the Ogeechee allowed under their permit.

Worst of all, EPD found that KAF had added two manufacturing lines without notifying the state of the change. How was this allowed to happen?

The regulatory climate in the state of Georgia is such that EPD has been stripped of much of its ability to investigate violations and enforce the law. During the Perdue administration, EPD’s budget was slashed over 40%. In keeping with this trend, Governor Nathan Deal has gutted the DNR governing board, which now consists entirely of corporate and industrial interests. Any pretense of balance is gone.

Last Tuesday, hundreds of people attended a public hearing at Effingham High School on EPD’s draft permit that will allow King America Finishing to legally pollute our beautiful Ogeechee River.

The 50+ citizens who spoke on Tuesday are outraged that the current setup — where the factory monitors itself and reports its testing results to the state — repeatedly referred to King America Finishing as the fox guarding the henhouse.

They have a point. Just like in the old permit, under the proposed draft KAF will monitor itself, reporting its own test results to the state to demonstrate their compliance.

What toxic chemicals does the state propose to allow KAF to dump? Really nasty stuff like chromium (12 pounds per day!), mercury, sulfates, ammonia and formaldehyde. In addition, the new permit allows the quantity of effluent to equal 10 percent of the river flow!

The Ogeechee is a very small river. It experiences enormous fluctuations in flow over the course of a normal year. The burden that toxins have placed on the river has already done irreparable damage. The new permit promises more of the same.

The testimony on Tuesday was very hard to listen to. Gone are the days when entire weekends were spent on and in the river swimming, paddling, and fishing. There are many, many people who depended on the Ogeechee as a source of food for their families.

Now the fish are gone, and people are afraid to get in the water. An entire way of life has vanished.

Not one representative for KAF was present. No one spoke in favor of the draft permit.

When it was my turn, I asked EPD officials Jane Hendricks and Jim Ussery a direct question: would they would go on record that KAF caused or contributed to the fish kill? My question was met with complete silence.

If the EPD officials at Tuesday’s meeting weren’t going to answer that question, they certainly weren’t going to answer the one that has been burning in my mind for over a year: why is the state helping King America Finishing instead of enforcing the law?

After hearing that dead fish were turning up again on the river a couple of weeks ago, I drove up through the watershed, stopping at every place along the road where I could see or access the river.

It was Memorial Day weekend, but the landings were deserted, and everywhere I went there was eerie silence.

I spoke to the DNR employees at the Oliver landing who were there taking samples and examining fish, and they showed me many compromised specimens across all species — gills inflamed, fish with sores. The river should have been busy with people fishing, swimming, paddling and just enjoying the cool water on a hot day.

Instead: silence, and a river that appeared to be dead.

Ogeechee Riverkeeper is a small, feisty, grassroots organization. We’ve spent the last year grabbing samples, analyzing test results, talking to citizens, and advocating in the courts. When the EPD cut KAF a great deal — paying a mere one million dollars to fund a yet–to–be–determined environmental project of their choosing on the river — without public input, we sued the agency.

Amazingly, the administrative law judge in Atlanta ruled that Ogeechee Riverkeeper doesn’t have the right (in legal terms, “standing”) to sue. We’re still fighting that fight, with the expert help of environmental attorneys Stack & Associates and GreenLaw.

We are preparing to file suit against the company in federal court under the Clean Water Act, and we are, along with hundreds of our members, vigorously fighting the draft permit.

We at Riverkeeper are not just fighting for the Ogeechee River. This fight is for every creek, river, lake and waterway in Georgia.

As long as industries like KAF are allowed to break the law and pollute our waterways without fear of consequences, disasters like the one on the Ogeechee are inevitable.

As citizens, we do have options:

• Call your elected officials and tell them enough is enough.

• Submit written comments by June 26 opposing the draft permit by email to [email protected]. (Use the words “King America Finishing, Inc. – NPDES permit reissuance” in the subject line.)

• Mail comments to Watershed Protection Branch, Wastewater Regulatory Program, 4220 International Parkway, Suite 101, Atlanta, GA 30354.

• And join Ogeechee Riverkeeper! www.ogeecheeriverkeeper.org.

Ann Hartzell is board chair of Ogeechee Riverkeeper.

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