After about seven years of discharging effluent from its textiles plant into the Ogeechee River without a permit, King America Finishing is no longer in violation of federal law because King finally does have a permit. Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division issued the permit earlier this week to the Screven County plant, nearly 18 months after a massive fish kill drew attention to what King America was discharging into the Ogeechee, and also the fact the company was doing so with a permit that was invalidated in 2006.
EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said the new permit puts “Tougher limits on the discharge and increased monitoring requirements were written into the (new) EPD permit. These conditions make the discharge the most highly regulated in the state.”
We hope Chambers’ assessment is correct. But we won’t take the EPD’s word for it and we doubt most of the residents who live on or near the Ogeechee River and the tens of thousands who use it for fishing and recreation will, either.
Let's go back to EPD's initial findings regarding the May 2011 fish kill. EPD said the official cause of death was columnaris, a bacterial disease caused by environmental stress.
But because dead fish were found exclusively south of King's discharge pipe, most people are convinced the plant's chemical-laden effluent, paired with drought conditions and high temperatures, caused the environmental stress.
While EPD acknowledged that no dead fish were found upstream from King, the idea that chemicals in the effluent played a key role in killing the fish was basically dismissed by EPD from the start. That created an immediate sense of distrust with area residents because there was and remains overwhelming evidence chemicals were a huge factor in killing the 38,000 fish.
The perception from many in southeast Georgia is that EPD was more interested in protecting King America from significant penalties than doing its duty and protecting the Ogeechee River.
Requirements in the new permit, however, should be encouraging to all of us in southeast Georgia to believe King will be much more closely monitored in what the textiles company discharges into the Ogeechee.
Part of the fine assessed on King will be used to install four continuous water quality monitors, including one upstream from the Dover plant at Rocky Ford Road and one downstream at Highway 301 North. Also, King is paying $75,000 for 18 months of monitoring the facility’s discharge by a third party.
The new permit also specifies much lower discharge limits into the river from the King plant for pollutants, such as ammonia, and some new limits on formaldehyde and fecal coliform that were not in place previously.
In one of the more unusual stipulations in the agreement, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper is allowed to update or change the permit requirements every six months if it finds deficiencies in King’s adherence to permit requirements.
And the Riverkeeper, which was founded in 2004, now has funding of $2.5 million as part of the settlement to closely monitor the Ogeechee and track if King Finishing is not following the rules of its permit.
We state all of the above because while we are satisfied the agreement on paper goes a long way to ensuring King complies with much stricter guidelines for what the company discharges into the river, it also allows third parties like the Riverkeeper to monitor King closely. Frankly, Georgia EPD’s past track record of enforcing permit requirements at the King plant was negligent.
The fact is that, primarily, the Riverkeeper and landowners on and around the Ogeechee, not EPD, forced King Finishing to be a responsible corporate neighbor and take responsibility for its actions. In other words, we believe one of the strongest parts of the agreement is that groups other than the EPD will be monitoring the King America plant’s discharge.
That said, we applaud the EPD for finally reaching a solution that, we hope, will protect the Ogeechee River as the invaluable natural resource it is to all of us in southeast Georgia.