For the fourth time since a massive fish kill was discovered in the Ogeechee River in May 2011, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division held a public hearing to listen to concerns about the river and a proposed discharge permit for King America Finishing.
For the fourth time, residents asked many questions about EPD oversight of the river, most specifically why King continues to be allowed to discharge into the Ogeechee without a permit since at least 2006.
And for the fourth time, EPD representatives sat, didn't say a word and promised to get back with answers to questioners at the hearing.
If EPD's past actions are an indication to what the 200 or so people in attendance can expect the state agency to do following the latest hearing held Tuesday at Effingham County High School, they will receive little or no satisfactory response to their questions.
For the moment, let's put aside all the very legitimate concerns of area residents and environmentalists save one: King America's lack of a permit to discharge into the Ogeechee.
Among many stipulations, the federal Clean Water Act empowers states to set standards and issue permits for discharging into waterways to private companies that meet those standards. King America received a permit in 2001 to allow its textile plant in Dover to discharge treated industrial effluent into the Ogeechee.
Changes in 2006
In 2006, King added two flame retardant lines to its discharge, but failed to get a permit allowing the new lines. Apparently, Georgia EPD officials did not discover King's lack of a permit, or chose not to require a new permit, until after the May 2011 fish kill forced an investigation of what King was putting into the river. So, from the moment King America's discharge changed in 2006, the company was in direct violation of Federal law, which prohibits any discharging of treated waste into a waterway without a permit.
And, as we all know, King still discharges today into the Ogeechee.
Again, for approximately five years, the EPD allowed King America to put treated wastewater into the Ogeechee without having the legally-required discharge permit. The federal Clean Water Act charges the Georgia EPD with the responsibility to issue a permit after overseeing a proper vetting process.
EPD officials have never offered a satisfactory answer as to how or why King added the two lines without a permit. And, frankly, there is no satisfactory answer for such an appalling oversight.
Now, let's go back to EPD's initial findings regarding the 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.
Distrust in EPD
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 is overwhelming evidence chemicals were a huge factor in killing the 38,000 fish.
Rightly or wrongly, the perception from many in southeast Georgia is that EPD has been more interested in protecting King America from significant penalties than doing its duty and protecting the Ogeechee River. And that perception has a very strong basis in fact: Georgia is one of a few states where EPD's mission statement not only requires responsibility for enforcing federal environmental laws, it also must consider protecting jobs in determining penalties for violations.
While EPD director Jud Turner insists some residents are allowing their conspiracy theories to run wild, EPD's inherent conflict of protecting both the river and jobs is a pretty good reason to believe King America has gotten off lightly. We are mindful that King employs more than 400 area workers at its Dover plant. But that must not give King, or any company, a pass from serious consequences for harming the environment, whether done willfully or through ignorance or incompetence.
King America's $1 million fine is such a small amount for a company its size, it barely registers on the bottom line. We believe perception is reality when it comes to the minuscule penalties King has faced for years of discharging effluent into the Ogeechee that was cited multiple times by EPD for not meeting standards.
Yes, the new draft permit requires far more rigorous testing of King's effluent discharge and higher standards for purity of what goes into the river. And we support the stringent new conditions. However, EPD's track record of lax enforcement in this instance leaves a lot of people understandably skeptical that the agency, this time, will fully and properly enforce the permit's requirements.
From all that has transpired, we understand the frustration with the EPD and the genuine fear that one of southeast Georgia's most beautiful and valuable natural resources is being irreparably harmed. Also, some believe their own health has been negatively affected by King's discharges into the Ogeechee. Many have called for the EPD to deny King a permit, forcing it to shutter, or at least close the plant down until a permit is issued.
At this point, we do not support closing the plant. We do believe EPD should reconsider the $1 million fine against King and increase it to at least $10 million, with all proceeds going to river cleanup and a program for supporting fish and wildlife on the Ogeechee.
Also, EPD must listen sincerely to voices like the Ogeechee Riverkeeper and those of longtime residents who are asking for stronger river protections and long term studies of the effects of chemicals like THPC. And then it must enforce all permit requirements with zero tolerance and harsh penalties for any violations.
We believe the EPD rightfully has earned a ton of distrust for its handling of King America's role in the 2011 fish kill. The state agency can begin to regain its credibility as a responsible steward of the environment by demonstrating the health of the Ogeechee River is more important than the sustainability of the King America plant.