Divide remains over state’s response to Ogeechee River fish kill

Jimmy Hayes looks over his Belted Galloway Cattle on his farm, Healthy Hollow Farms, Wednesday afternoon in Statesboro, Ga., August 7, 2013. The Hayes own 22 cattle. The Hayes property borders with the Ogeechee river. It's been over two years since the worst fish kill in Georgia history on the Ogeechee river by chemical dumping of the King America Finishing Plant, just up the river from the Hayes property. The Hayes, other farmers and townspeople along the Ogeechee River in south Georgia are growing increasingly frustrated and angry. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

WHAT IS KING AMERICA FINISHING?

The company makes flame resistant fabrics used by the military, utilities, chemical plants and steel mills. Its fabrics go into home furnishings, prison uniforms and U.S. flags provided during the burial of U.S. servicemen. King America is a family-owned company, based in Chicago. The Dover factory, with 500 employees, used to belong to Spartan Mills, a textile plant that went bankrupt more than a decade ago.

WHAT DOES KING AMERICA PUMP INTO THE OGEECHEE RIVER?

Sulfides, ammonia, phenols, chromium, nitrogen, phosphorus, formaldehyde and sodium, according to Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division.

WHAT WILL THE $1.3 MILLION FINE BE USED FOR?

$1.1 million: Ogeechee River research involving Georgia Southern University.

$158,609: Improvements to the city of Millen's wastewater treatment plant.

$75,000: Third-party monitoring of the King America's discharge into the Ogeechee for a duration of 18 months.

THE OGEECHEE RIVER

Ogeechee means, possibly, "River of the Yuchis" which was an Indian tribe that lived along the river in the 17th century. The Ogeechee starts in Greene and Taliaferro counties and meanders southeastward for 250 miles to the Atlantic Ocean below Savannah. It flows unimpeded by dams – a rarity in Georgia – past peanut, cotton and timber farms.

Decaying vegetation and tannic acid from tree roots and bark in the nearby swamps give the river a burgundy or tea-colored sheen. Raccoon, deer, otter, beaver, mink, alligators and bald eagles and wood storks populate the river. The flora is equally lush: tupelo, cypress, water oak, red maple, blackgum, sweet gum, sycamore and oak. Shad, redbreast, crappie, striped bass and catfish make the river a fisherman’s paradise.

EPD reports that 57 industries and municipalities are permitted to discharge wastewater into the Ogeechee River basin.

Connie Shreve’s outpost along Georgia’s Ogeechee River has long been a weekend getaway for Savannahians, with its ramshackle cabins built in the 1920s, canoes and rope swings.

The fish camp, once so popular it brought in $10,000 a year, was the perfect place to teach kids about the river’s ecology. Attendance over the past two years, however, has dwindled to nothing.

“It’s normally packed with people here,” Shreve said. “Since the fish kill, it’s been bad. Nobody’s been calling to go canoeing.”

In May 2011, 38,000 fish turned belly up on the Ogeechee, the worst fish kill in Georgia history. Many in East Georgia blame the King America Finishing plant, where 500 employees churn out flame resistant fabrics used by the military, utilities, chemical plants and steel mills.

Though state environmental officials discovered that King America had been illegally dumping wastewater into the river for five years, they determined, ultimately, that the textile plant was not responsible for the fish kill. Shreve, who lives 75 miles below the factory, rejects the state’s conclusion. Ogeechee property owners also question the state’s response to the fish kill and the settlements reached with the company last week.

King America agreed to pay $6.8 million to help protect the river, which includes upgrades to the factory’s wastewater discharge system. Some environmental groups labeled the accord a “historic achievement.”

That same day, Wednesday, King America received a wastewater discharge permit, which a state official labeled “a key milestone.”

“We are committed to making life-saving products in an environmentally responsible way,” the company said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

King America also pointed out that federal and state officials didn’t blame the factory for the fish kill.

Shreve and other property owners are miffed that the state allows King America to continue dumping wastewater with chemicals into the Ogeechee. She wonders if her canoe business will ever return.

“This was a business I planned to leave to my children,” said Shreve, who recently quit a job she took at a restaurant to help make ends meet. “But it’s just a nightmare now. And every single day they’re pumping chemicals into it. It doesn’t stop.”

The settlements reached last week involve one company on one river. But the rest of Georgia should take note, environmentalists say.

Thousands of factories, municipalities, farms and construction sites from Atlanta to Brunswick send waste, chemicals and other pollutants into rivers and streams. The same waterways provide drinking water, fish dinners and outdoor adventures for millions of Georgians.

Critics question if the Environmental Protection Division (EPD), the state’s environmental enforcer, is doing a good enough job protecting Georgia’s rivers.

“Miles of our state’s waterways are impaired and not safe,” said April Ingle, executive director of the Georgia River Network, which seeks to protect and restore the state’s rivers. “So incidents like the Ogeechee fish kill makes people unsure whether or not the EPD is capable of doing its job. EPD has a big challenge to earn back peoples’ trust.”

Dying fish, dyeing textiles

The dead fish showed up on the Ogeechee in mid-May 2011. EPD said the floating fish were spotted from Dover to the Chatham County line, 75 miles away.

Two days after the EPD first responded, the agency warned the public about health risks from swimming in, or eating fish from, the Ogeechee. EPD lifted the swimming advisory five days later and the consumption advisory June 3.

A textile dyeing and finishing plant has operated along the banks of the Ogeechee in Dover, about 175 miles southeast of Atlanta, since 1965. King America, a family-owned company based in Chicago, bought the plant out of bankruptcy in 2001.

Fabrics made at the plant go into home furnishings, prison uniforms and U.S. flags used during burials of U.S. servicemen. Sulfides, ammonia, phenols, chromium, nitrogen, phosphorus, formaldehyde and sodium are among the by-products released into the river.

Despite the chemicals and the proximity of the dead fish to its discharge pipes, state officials never linked the fish kill to King America. State and federal officials who tested the waters said that high levels of chemicals alone were not sufficient to kill so many fish.

Instead, they pointed to a combination of things: chemical imbalances in the river; low river flows due to a historic drought; an increase in normal river temperature; and low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water. Technically, the fish died from a bacterial disease called columnaris, which generally affects fish that are stressed.

The state sent King America an August 2011 letter, three months after the spill, allowing the factory to resume operations, as long as the company undertook more testing and treatment of waste.

In September, King America signed a $1 million consent order with EPD, stipulating additional monitoring and river clean-ups. Angry landowners, including Shreve, weren’t given an opportunity to comment on the settlement.

The Ogeechee Riverkeeper, with legal help from Atlanta-based GreenLaw, sued to halt the permit.

“This failure to require the cessation of the unpermitted discharges pending the issuance of a permit reveals that EPD had no intentions of objectively considering whether it should issue the permit,” the Clean Water Act lawsuit charged.

In July 2012, a judge threw out the consent order for lack of public input.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eventually stepped in and recommended tighter discharge limits, expanded monitoring and increased testing to ensure the river’s color isn’t unduly affected by the discharge. EPD and King America complied.

EPD director Jud Turner said the state was trying to balance protection of the environment with economic development. King America is the largest private employer in Screven and Bulloch counties.

“If you shut it down, you’d kill a lot of jobs,” said Jess Stokes, a big-time corn, peanut and soybean farmer in Oliver who has swum in the river all his 62 years. “It would devastate Screven, Bulloch and Jenkins counties. People don’t make much money, but they need that check. There ain’t no jobs.”

Most regulated factory in Georgia

EPD, in its investigation of the fish kill, discovered that King America had been discharging treated wastewater into the Ogeechee via two illegal lines. The lines opened in 2006. EPD inspectors never noticed them. Turner, who joined the EPD eight months after the fish kill, said last week he didn’t know why they weren’t previously detected.

Between 2008 and 2011, the Department of Natural Resources’ entire budget had shrunk 20 percent to $24.3 million. The department lost 100 employees. Turner said blaming budget cuts for the slow response to the fish kill, as well as for EPD’s inability to uncover the discharge lines, “is too simple an answer.”

Nonetheless, the agency has since restored EPD’s emergency response team to its former size. It has also boosted inspections and began reviewing wastewater permits statewide to ensure all are in order. Turner recently named a permit compliance director.

If there is a problem with a discharge, the state relies on the company to speak up. The set-up is not unusual. States evaluate compliance through inspections and reports filed by companies or municipalities.

“We have to go with the self-reporting system because we have such a large number of municipalities and industries,” said Sally Bethea, the Atlanta-based riverkeeper for the Chattahoochee. “But we need a large inspection crew that visits facilities without warning. If there are no cops on the street, people will do whatever they want.”

King America signed a revised consent order Wednesday and agreed to pay $1.3 million — up $300,000 from the original settlement — to help clean up and monitor the river’s health. That same day, the factory got a new wastewater discharge permit.

Turner said King America is now the most regulated factory in the state. The company agreed to limit wastewater discharge to no more than 8 percent of the Ogeechee’s total flow. And, during times of drought when the river runs low, the factory will “suspend production,” Turner said.

Critics question how the fine will be divvied up. The state steered more than $1 million to Georgia Southern University to monitor and research the river; $159,000 to improve the city of Millen’s wastewater treatment plant, which sits 30 miles upriver of King America; and $75,000 to independently monitor the factory’s discharges over the next 18 months.

“The money should not go for a waste water plant above the plant,” said Connie Hayes, an organic peanut farmer in Brooklet whose local family roots date to 1750. “They made the limits on the chemicals a little more stringent. They put fish back in the river. But they haven’t cleaned out the poison. What’s the point? (EPD’s) focus is on economic development rather than protection of the people of Georgia.”

King America settled about 80 lawsuits brought by riverfront landowners. Wednesday, the company settled the Clean Water lawsuit brought by the Ogeechee Riverkeeper. King America will pay $2.5 million to the river protection group. It will also spend $2.5 million upgrading its wastewater treatment processes.

“After a long and productive dialogue with the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, we are pleased that we have finally been able to make peace with one another,” Michael Beasley, president of King America, said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to work cooperatively with them in the coming months and years.”

GreenLaw, which served as the riverkeeper's co-counsel, said the Ogeechee will "be significantly more protected.

“The chance of a recurrence of this fish kill is drastically reduced,” said GreenLaw attorney Hutton Brown. “Having recognized they messed up, King America in good faith has done what’s necessary to be a good citizen going forward.”

‘The state can do a lot better’

Seventy facilities, including industries and municipalities, are authorized to discharge treated wastewater into the Ogeechee River basin alone. Statewide, hundreds of factories, towns, utilities and other facilities have permission to dump chemicals and other treated waste into Georgia’s 13 other major river basins.

Add “non-point” sources of pollution — fertilizers, insecticides, motor oil, construction site mud and dog poop — that wash into the state’s streams, and critics question whether EPD is up to the job of regulating water quality.

The Georgia River Coalition unveiled last month its annual Dirty Dozen list of some of the state’s worst polluters, such as a pulp mill along the Altamaha River and a chicken processor in Gainesville.

Stormwater runoff is cited as a particularly egregious example of EPD’s failure to protect Georgia’s rivers, according to the river coalition. Nearly 2,300 industrial sites statewide are permitted to allow stormwater to flow from their property into streams. EPD employs two industrial stormwater inspectors.

“EPD still doesn’t seem to get it,” said riverkeeper Bethea. “The few times they do the right thing is often because citizens demand they do their jobs. Yes, they do not have adequate resources to do their jobs, but that’s a result of leadership.”

EPD’s Turner says his agency, in conjunction with industry, environmental groups and concerned citizens, does a good job protecting Georgia.

“There’s no silver bullet here for most of these management challenges,” he said. “Everybody wants clean water, air and land. Our job is to put limited resources in the right places.”

Cristina Williams understands the budgetary and political limits faced by EPD. She gets the jobs-versus-environment argument. Williams, boiling peanuts alongside a bridge crossing the Ogeechee, could use a job herself.

But some things — like swimming in the Ogeechee or eating its redbreast, crappie or bass without fear of chemicals — aren’t worth sacrificing.

“The state can do a lot better,” said Williams, who lives in Oliver in Screven County. “What is your tax money really paying for if not to protect you?”

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