Georgia Environmental Protection Division officials still say the cause of a recent fish kill in the Ogeechee River likely is drought conditions, but they have not clarified the difference between conditions upriver and downriver from a textiles plant suspected by some to have been a contributing factor.
In a related development, the advisories against swimming and fishing in the river were lifted Wednesday, Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn said.
In a statement released Wednesday, EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said, “The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has concluded that drought-related conditions are the likely cause of a fish kill in east Georgia’s Ogeechee River, but an exact cause will never be known.”
Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp and Department of Natural Resources Regional Supervisor Tim Barrett both have said no dead fish were found north of the King America Finishing discharge pipe in Dover in May, when the discovery of dead fish was reported about a year after a massive fish kill in 2011.
Both Barrett and Wedincamp also said river conditions upstream and downstream from the plant are the same, and that there must be another factor in the recent fish deaths.
“We are not aware of any dead fish above King America, but I can't say there aren't any in that section of the river,” Chambers said Wednesday. “Downstream, the first dead fish we found were three miles below King Finishing.”
The recent deaths followed a major fish kill a year before, also on Memorial Day weekend, in which thousands of fish floated to the surface along 70 miles of the river south of the textiles plant.
After extensive investigations last year, EPD officials found King America Finishing in violation of discharge permits and issued a consent order that the company pay $1 million in river improvements. However, there was no evidence proving the plant’s actions caused the fish kill.
King America attorney Lee Dehihns said in a statement in May that the textiles company was found to be in compliance with permits and was not the cause of either fish kill.
“The Ogeechee River is the same upriver as it is downriver, so why are fish dying downriver of the King America Finishing discharge pipe?” Wedincamp asked. “We are still dealing with the same problem.”
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization investigated the 2011 fish kill and reported finding no dead fish north of the plant, but tens of thousands south of the plant.
This May, the group found about 25 dead fish between the plant’s pipe and U.S. 301 North.
“We’re not surprised by more dead fish,” Wedincamp said.
Bacteria in the river
Tests showed two suspect bacteria in water samples taken from the river south of the King America Finishing plant — columnaris and aeromonas, Chambers said.
The bacteria live in all natural waters and when environmental stress occurs and weakens fish, the bacteria move in, Barrett said.
Wedincamp said she thinks pollutants from King America also caused stress that exacerbated the columnaris and aeromonas infections in the fish kills last month and a year earlier.
In 2011, about 38,000 fish of multiple species died. Last month, EPD reported more than a dozen dead fish; Wedincamp said at least 100 dead fish were collected.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, aeromonas hydrophilia is “a species of bacterium that is present in all freshwater environments and in brackish water. Some strains … are capable of causing illness in fish and amphibians as well as in humans who may acquire infections through open wounds or by ingestion of a sufficient number of the organisms in food or water.”
The bacteria “may cause gastroenteritis in healthy individuals or septicemia in individuals with impaired immune systems or various malignancies.”
In May 2011, several people complained of rashes, nausea and breathing difficulty after swimming in the Ogeechee on Memorial Day weekend, after the first dead fish had been reported but before public safety officials posted advisories. There has been no evidence that any chemical or bacteria in the river caused illness, although some residents have filed lawsuits against King America Finishing claiming injury.
Results from testing
Test results of water samples released Wednesday “show the river is meeting water quality standards. Fewer than 100 dead fish were found last month in various stretches of the river,” Chambers said.
Flow in the Ogeechee River dropped to 60-70 cubic feet per second in May. The historical average stream flow needed to support healthy fish is 127 cubic feet per second, he said.
“Water temperatures also have risen above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which also can contribute to health problems with fish.”
When asked whether the river temperatures and levels differ upstream and downstream from the plant’s discharge site, Chambers said he did not immediately have access to that information.
Tests from water samples were analyzed after the recent fish kill, and EPD also conducted an extensive inspection of the King America Finishing facility in late May, he said.
“This included analysis of discharge monitoring reports, inspecting production and wastewater treatment operations and water sampling at the plant’s discharge point in the river,” Chambers said. “EPD determined the plant is operating in compliance with current requirements.”
Wedincamp said test results from samples the riverkeeper collected showed extremely high levels of ammonia, formaldehyde and other chemicals downriver from the King America discharge pipe, but levels of those same chemicals were “almost nonexistent” upriver.
Both aeromonas and columnaris cause frayed, ragged fins and ulcers. Columnaris causes white patchy areas and mucous in fish; ulcers develop within 24-48 hours and death occurs within 72 hours, according to the FDA.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.