The Ogeechee Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit Monday claiming that King America Finishing, a textiles plant in Dover, has violated the federal Clean Water Act since at least April 2006.
Represented by GreenLaw, Stack and Associates, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization, led by Dianna Wedincamp, filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Savannah.
The lawsuit alleges that King America Finishing continues illegally to discharge pollution to the Ogeechee River.
Lee Dehihns, an attorney representing King America, said Tuesday: “The
company is concerned that the Ogeechee Riverkeeper is suing it for allegations and will vigorously defend itself against the lawsuit.”
Don Stack, an attorney representing the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, said the company has clearly violated the Clean Water Act.
“It is pretty clear ... King America and the Environmental Protection Division are going to both be held accountable for allowing conditions to exist to degrade one of Georgia’s most beautiful and pristine rivers,” he said.
King America had more than a year to address serious pollution violations following the state’s largest fish kill, “but they didn’t,” Wedincamp said. “The government had years to stop the pollution, and they didn’t. We are asking the courts to do what the environmental law enforcers have failed to do — to stop the pollution of the Ogeechee River from King America Finishing.”
The lawsuit demands a jury trial.
In part, the suit reads: “The Riverkeeper brings this action on behalf of itself and members who have been injured by the defendants’ failure to comply with federal and state laws as well as local ordinances governing the discharge of pollutants into a water of the U.S. without a permit.”
The suit alleges that King America “knowingly violated the clean water laws for over six years and that this illegal discharge caused the largest fish kill in Georgia history,” Wedincamp said.
She said records show that the plant has discharged wastewater containing “extremely high levels” of hydrogen peroxide, ammonia and formaldehyde since at least April 2006 she said.
The Clean Water Act allows citizens to file lawsuits forcing the court to take charge whenever government agencies fail to enforce the law, she added.
“The Ogeechee Riverkeeper’s case seeks to have a court fine King America Finishing for its pollution of the river and to issue an order stopping the illegal discharge,” Wedincamp said.
The suit requests penalties of up to $37,500 per day for each violation, plus litigation costs; asks that the illegal discharge cease; and that the damage to the river be repaired.
The unpermitted discharge began in 2006 when the textiles plant, owned by Westex, of Chicago, added two flame-retardant process lines to its wastewater discharge. The plant did not acquire a permit to discharge the pollution from the additional process lines into the Ogeechee River, Wedincamp said.
In May 2011, “the largest fish kill in Georgia history occurred below King America Finishing affecting nearly 85 miles of the river and killing over 38,000 fish,” she said. “There were no dead fish found upstream of the King America facility.”
After tests showed extreme levels of pollutants, and tracing the fish kill to just south of the plant’s discharge pipe, fingers began pointing to the plant.
The cause of death for the thousands of fish was ruled columnaris, a bacterial disease caused by environmental stress.
Wedincamp and many residents have stated in public hearings that they believe the stress was caused by pollutants, compounded by low water levels that made the concentration of those chemicals higher.
In an investigation following the fish kill, EPD officials determined King America had violated several laws, but did not shut down the discharge. The EPD issued a consent order requiring the plant to fund a $1 million Supplemental Environmental Project, but the Ogeechee Riverkeeper protested the move on grounds that the EPD did not seek public input regarding the order.
Administrative Law Judge Lois Oakley ruled that the Riverkeeper had no right to protest the consent order, but Bulloch County Superior Court Judge John R. Turner ruled Thursday that residents, including the Riverkeeper, do have that right.
“In what was termed a ‘backroom deal’ by watchdog groups, the EPD entered into an agreement with King America following the fish kill,” Wedincamp said. “The agreement purported to allow the King Finishing to continue to discharge unpermitted pollutants from the flame retardant lines. The company also agreed to pay $1 million for an undefined ‘environmental project’ instead of paying $91 million in potential fines.”
Stack said: “The unchecked pollution leaving King America is a poster child for poor law enforcement. When the government fails to do its job, the law allows concerned citizens to hold polluters accountable. Today, Ogeechee Riverkeeper is stepping into the shoes of government, because the regulators have failed to do their job.”
The lawsuit was not the only one filed this week against King America.
Chatham County veterinarian Joe H. McKenzie, Pike Lake LLC and McLaws Bay LLC filed suit against King America and its CEO, Mike Beasley, as well as Westex, claiming damage to their property along the Ogeechee River.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.