Watch as we return to the Ogeechee River a year after the fish kill on Monday's Studio Statesboro segment.
While officials await the results of water quality tests regarding the Ogeechee River, the question of why fish are dying downriver from a local textiles plant — but not upriver — remains unanswered.
When about 38,000 fish died in the Ogeechee River in May 2011, the cause was ruled to be columnaris, a bacterial disease caused by environmental stress. The dozen fish found dead this Memorial Day weekend died of the same bacterial infection, according to Environmental Protection Division officials.
EPD officials said possible reasons for the fish kills were lower water levels and higher temperatures. However, although water levels and temperatures would be the same both upriver and downriver from King America Finishing, which discharges wastewater into the river near Dover, no dead fish have been found upstream of the textiles plant discharge pipe.
The questions as to what factors maybe different upriver and downstream of the plant remain unanswered.
EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said Tuesday: “Test results from water samples are not available, but I'm expecting them this week. Once they are in, we can better respond to … questions (about the fish kills).”
Department of Natural Resources Region Supervisor Tim Barrett said Tuesday no more dead fish have been found after about a dozen were discovered south of the King America discharge pipe at the U.S. 301 (Dover) and Ga. 24 (Oliver) landings.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp has said pollution from the plant is the cause of the environmental stress leading to columnaris outbreaks. The river water tested downriver from the outfall pipe historically has shown extremely high levels of formaldehyde, ammonia and other chemicals, she said.
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization is circulating a petition asking people to protest the plant’s discharge permits. The petition, available online at www.change.org/petitions, reads: “I am opposed to the issuance of the King America Finishing draft pollution permit to the Ogeechee River.
“The draft permit will allow too much pollution from King America Finishing into the Ogeechee River. This permit allows unsafe levels of ammonia, formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals into a once pristine river system. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division should protect Georgia’s waterways and hold polluters accountable.”
Efforts to seek comment Tuesday from King America’s attorney, Lee Dehihns, were not successful. All calls to King America seeking comment regarding the river were referred to Dehihns.
In previous statements about the river and King America Finishing, Dehihns said: “We have been in communication with EPD, and they have reviewed our effluent data. We are in full compliance. … Everything at the plant is working fine, and no one has told us we are doing anything wrong.”
While there have been no more fish found dead since Memorial Day weekend, DNR and EPD officials continue investigating, Barrett said.
Although lower water levels and high temperatures can indeed affect fish health, Barrett acknowledged the fact that factors other than these could be reasons behind the fish kill, particularly because no dead fish have been found upriver of the King America plant.
“Certainly this weather doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what caused the fish to become ill,” he said. Columnaris and other bacteria are “always in the streams, waiting for stressed fish, in order to attack. That doesn’t mean that’s all to it. The unknown may remain unknown.”
Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn, who reminds the public that the advisories against fishing and swimming in the river in Bulloch County remain in place until further notice, also commented on the fact that low water levels and higher water temperatures would be the same upriver and downriver from the plant’s discharge pipe.
“I don’t think there would be any difference (in water levels and temperatures in both locations),” he said. “Just like everybody else, I find it very suspicious that there have been no dead fish found above the (discharge pipe) site.”
A conference call between EPD, DNR and area emergency management directors was postponed Tuesday. The call was to include discussion about water quality tests of samples taken from the river near the sites where dead fish were collected last month, Wynn said.
The test results were not available Tuesday.
Barrett said DNR officials will continue monitoring and investigating the river.
“We’re still trying to figure out why (the fish died),” he said. “The fish are sick below the plant and don’t seem to be affected above it. Until we find out what’s going on, we’ll keep looking.”
Holli Deal Bragg maybe reached at (912) 489-9414.