In spite of a massive fish kill a week before, people enjoyed swimming and other activities over the Memorial Day weekend at various spots along the Ogeechee River.
However, the crowds may not have been as large as in years past, even though Environmental Protection Division officials said the river was safe for swimming. Test results are still unreturned regarding possible contaminants. An advisory against eating fish from the river still stands.
“I saw no one on the riverbanks, no one swimming or lying around. It was not the usual packed sandbars with people enjoying the river,” said Dianna Wedincamp, Ogeechee Riverkeeper. She was talking about spots she monitored Friday and Saturday. “The only thing we saw on the riverbanks were buzzards.”
She said she could not say what kind of crowds may have appeared later. She spent the weekend on the Ogeechee, but was in Jenkins County, north of the spot she said the fish kill originated.
Preliminary testing proved the fish – thousands of bream, redbreast, bass, catfish, mudfish, gar and more – died from columnaris, a bacteria caused by “environmental stress,” according to EPD reports. Wedincamp said the question still remains as to what caused that environmental stress.
Others reported seeing large crowds at several river landings along the Ogeechee Monday.
“There were lots of people there - more than was expected,” said Charlene Driggers Beasley. “Some even camped out. It seemed like nothing ever happened.”
Cindy Richardson Thompson reported seeing a strange white substance on trees and on the ground along the river at Woodard Landing, a private landing near Brooklet.
“I … saw some white stuff on trees that looked like paint and then some stuff that was white crystal looking,” she said.
Mario Romano said he and his family suffered illness including rash, blisters, nausea and diarrhea after spending time in the river the week of the fish kill. He said he noticed a “silver substance” lining the Ogeechee banks at Steel Bridge landing.
Wedincamp is testing the soil from that landing, she said.
While both she and the EPD await further test results from the river, Wedincamp said she is unsure as to when the results will be released. Findings after preliminary testing “are being analyzed,” she said.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests at the river a few days after the first dead fish appeared showed no unsafe levels of chemicals, Jim Ussery, Assistant EPD Director said Friday. “Based on the EPA data, we are confident the swim advisory is no longer appropriate.”
Wedincamp feels there is more to the story. She traced the fish kill to a spot six miles north of U.S. 301 North at the Screven/Bulloch County line. There were no dead fish found north of that point, which was located at a discharge pipe from King America Finishing, a textiles processing plant.
An investigation Monday, May 23, found no obvious violations, but the EPD has not cleared the company yet, said Kevin Chambers, EPD spokesman.
King America Finishing president Mike Beasley said he doesn’t know how his company could be responsible but said he wants to know what caused the kill as well. “We’re mystified. If we’re causing it I want to know it.”
The EPD and EPA continue to investigate, Chambers said. Wedincamp said her agency is also conducting its own investigation.
Facing hundreds of emails Tuesday, she said she has received tips and information from people, all of which she is checking out.
“We investigate (the tips), but until we confirm it, it’s all hearsay,” she said.
Test results from private citizens showed abnormal amounts of sodium hydroxide, or lye, in the river last week, she said. She was not sure whether that could have caused the environmental stress that induced the breakout of columnaris.
EPD officials said columnaris is not known to affect humans and said there were no chemicals in the river water at dangerous levels to humans.
Wedincamp said she hoped to get test results and analyses soon, but added that the labs she used are ones that do work for nonprofit organizations such as Ogeechee Riverkeeper and may be slower in producing results.
Chambers said Tuesday there were no new test results available.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.