POOLER — State lawmakers and some residents along the troubled Ogeechee River will put their names on a letter, asking the state Environmental Protection Division to mandate a Screven County plant use independent testing on its discharge into the river.
King America Finishing, which agreed to an EPD consent order last month and also agreed to fund $1 million in supplemental environmental projects, is seeking a renewal of its permit, allowing it to discharge into the Ogeechee River. State lawmakers, led by Sen. Jack Hill, and others asked EPD officials Monday night if requiring the plant to have a third party conduct tests of its discharge can be made part of the permit renewal process.
“We’ve got to have the boots on the ground at the plant itself,” said Don Stack, an attorney representing the Ogeechee Riverkeeper in its Clean Water Act litigation against King America Finishing.
Monday night’s meeting, with Hill, state Sen. Buddy Carter and state Reps. Ann Purcell, Ron Stephens and Jan Tankersley, along with Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp and a handful of residents along the Ogeechee River, was a conference call with EPD officials.
King America stopped operation of two flame retardant finishing production lines on June 17. Testing of acute toxins has been conducted daily and will continue on a weekly basis. Chemical testing of the effluent is done daily and water from the river is sampled once per week, according to the EPD.
EPD officials said the discharge from King America Finishing is not causing a violation of water quality standards and is not killing any more fish. More than 38,000 fish were found dead in the Ogeechee in May.
And Ogeechee River residents wasted little time in letting know the state agency how they felt about how the EPD has handled the May fish kill and the aftermath.
“We have contempt for the system that is supposed to protect us, and they have contempt for the system that is supposed to monitor them,” said Screven County landowner David Gay of King America Finishing.
“Go protect someone else’s river,” Wayne Carney told EPD officials Jim Ussery, Liz Booth and Jeff Larson. “You’ve done all the protecting I want you to do.”
Carney also questioned how an EPD inspector could have missed a new process line on six different inspections of the plant.
“The only thing that’s going to make me happy is getting that discharge line out of the river,” he said.
The EPD allowing King America Finishing to self-monitor also drew sharp and pointed responses.
“How can we be sure it’s not going to happen again?” Stack asked.
Said Wedincamp of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper: “We really, really don’t trust them to monitor themselves. It’s hard for people to believe that after four months, you are letting them self-monitor again.”
Hill and the group also want to put together a list of projects that will aid the river and lead to its cleanup. Wedincamp pointed out they don’t want to see the $1 million go to such things as new boat ramps, and Dr. Stephen E. Vives, chairman of the Georgia Southern University Biology Department, said $1 million could be used up quickly in any projects.
“The $1 million SEP (supplemental environmental project) just isn’t enough,” Wedincamp said. “It’s going to take a lot more than that.”
Hill also voiced a sentiment of frustration from the lawmakers on how the Ogeechee River fish kill and its aftermath was handled.
“I think a higher degree of scrutiny is called for,” he said of the Screven County-based plant. “I think we’ve all lost confidence in the system.”
Questions of the river’s future still remained among its citizens.
“How are we going to know when our fish are safe to eat again?” asked Bulloch County’s Tommy Pope. “No one knows what the long-term effects of dumping in the river are. You have ruined my property. I can’t swim in it; I can’t grill on the sandbar; I can’t canoe in it; I can’t kayak in it. I’m living on a sewer ditch.”
EPD officials said they didn’t think the agency could force the company to institute independent testing at its own expense. But residents pleaded with the EPD to call for a moratorium on any further river discharges and to stipulate the third-party testing for the plant.
“Either they will bring the third-party tests, or they will be their own demise,” Gay said, “and we can say we tried to protect the plant and its employees. I think that’s fair. We want trust, but we want verification.
“I just want to see the river clean.”
Patrick Donahue is editor of the Effingham Herald.