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Official: Bacterial disease killed fish
EPD says infection is caused by 'environmental stress'
052511 FISH KILL 02 web
Ogeechee Riverkeeper director Dianna Wedincamp collects a dead fish on the Ogeechee River Wednesday while investigating the recent mass fish kill. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Ogeechee Riverkeepers keep watch

 Dianna Wedincamp took the job as the Ogeechee Riverkeeper because she loves the river basin in which she grew up.
    She applied for the full-time position in 2010 when former Riverkeeper Chandra Brown retired. “I was a founding board member, and became involved because my family and I were born and raised in the Ogeechee River basin,” she said.
    The current fish kill mystery involving a 40-mile stretch of the Ogeechee River concerns her, she said. Environmental Protection Division officials say the fish died due to columnaris, a bacterial disease caused by environmental stress. Wedincamp wonders about the factors that caused that stress.
    The Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization is a 1,700-member-based nonprofit organization funded by membership and donations. It is volunteer-run, with the exception of Wedincamp and a couple others, and its mission is to monitor pollution, preserve the rivers (it also covers the Canoochee) and educate people about the rivers.
    In 2005, the Friends of the Ogeechee group merged with the Canoochee Riverkeeper organization to form the Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper. In 2010, the name was shortened, according to information from the group’s website www.ogeecheeriverkeeper.org. The agency is a part of the international environmental advocacy group, Waterkeeper Alliance.
    More information can also be found on the group’s Facebook page at http://facebook.com/ogeechee.riverkeeper.

    A massive fish kill affecting 40 miles of the Ogeechee River was caused by a bacterial disease induced by environmental stress, environmentalists said Thursday.
    However, questions are still unanswered about what caused the environmental stress.
    “The cause of the environmental stress is still unknown; therefore, EPD continues to advise citizens in Bryan, Bulloch, Chatham, Effingham and Screven counties not to swim in or consume fish from the Ogeechee River until further notice,” said Kevin Chambers, an EPD spokesman who issued a press release around 6:30 p.m. Thursday, three hours after government officials held a briefing regarding the matter.
    The bacterial disease, columnaris, caused lesions, tattered fins and death of thousands of fish of all kinds from a point about six miles north of the U.S. 301 North landing in Bulloch County to locations about 40 miles south of that point. It is not known to affect humans, he said.
    The Ogeechee Riverkeeper, Dianna Wedincamp, said Thursday evening she still has questions about the fish kill, which she traced to a discharge pipe at King America Finishing, a textiles plant six miles north of the U.S. 301 bridge near Dover in Screven County.
    Although preliminary investigations at King Finishing showed no violations, EPD officials have not yet cleared the plant. Wedincamp wants to know why the “environmental stress” that caused the outbreak of columnaris appears to begin at that point.
    “I don’t understand how that can be,” she said.
    Wedincamp conducted her own testing of river water, sediment and fish. As of Thursday, the results of those tests were not available.
    “Our lab techs aren’t going to release anything until they analyze all the data,” she said.
    However, she said local citizens who had their own tests done in local labs found extremely high levels of sodium hydroxide, or lye, in the Ogeechee River waters.
    Across the region, people have been calling doctors, health departments and government officials with questions, as well as some reports of illness after spending the weekend in the river.
    Roger Naylor, public information director with the Southeast Health District that includes Bulloch County, said he has not received any calls from people claiming illness.  Sally Silbermann, public information officer with Coastal Health District, covering Chatham and Effingham counties, said her office received “about a dozen calls from people.” Complaints from citizens claiming illness they suspect is related to the fish kill include diarrhea, nausea, rashes and blisters, she said.
    Mario Romano said his family spent all weekend at the Steel Bridge landing on Ga. 119. He and his son spent about three hours Saturday, and his wife and daughter joined them again Sunday for a day of fun.
    He said his son and friends caught “big jack and gar, floating on their backs, barely alive.”  
     The dead fish didn’t appear until later that evening, and the blisters on his son’s back showed up the next day.
    Romano said the blisters are penny-sized, round and swollen. His wife and daughter suffered a mysterious rash on their torso, and the whole family experienced diarrhea and nausea. Romano himself discovered a single blister above his eye Wednesday, he said.
    “There is also a silver lining” of some sort of substance along the river banks, and the algae is  turning black, he said.
    He and his family went to a Statesboro doctor, who gave them medication to treat the blisters and rash, and told them he could not determine the cause until test results were released, he said. “He didn’t know what to do until he knew what could have caused it.”
    Bulloch County Environmental Health county manager Brad Wiggins said no one had contacted the Statesboro office with complaints. Naylor advised anyone with any symptoms of illness to contact their primary care provider.
    Chambers said the investigation continues by the Georgia EPD, Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division, US Environmental Protection Agency, US Fish and Wildlife Service, local emergency management agencies and other organizations.
    “Georgia EPD and the agencies involved in this investigation have Georgia residents’ health as our greatest concern and priority,” said Jim Ussery, Assistant Director of the Georgia EPD. “We will continue this investigation and release more test result as they become available.”
    
        Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.

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