SPRINGFIELD — One by one, speakers told state Environmental Protection Division representatives that the agency wasn’t doing its job and the pollution of the Ogeechee River had to stop.
EPD held a public hearing Tuesday night at Effingham County High School on a proposed consent order for King America Finishing, and those in attendance blasted both the company and the state agency.
“Your job is to protect the environment,” Connie Hayes said. “Yet you have repeatedly allowed a corporation from another state with no allegiance to Georgia or its people come into the area and recklessly or criminally destroy a once-pristine body of water. A silly little fine of $1 million is laughable at best.”
Speakers from the crowd of more than 100 lambasted the proposed consent order, saying it doesn’t do anything to alleviate or redress what has happened to the Ogeechee River.
They also reiterated their opposition to any discharge from King America Finishing into the river.
“We want the pipe out of the river,” Al Driggers said. “We don’t want no more poison dumped in.”
More than 38,000 fish died in an unprecedented May 2011 fish kill. Dead fish were found downstream of King America’s discharge pipe into the river. No dead fish were found upstream of the pipe. A bacteria, columnaris, was cited as the reason for the fish kill, and columnaris can be caused by environmental stress.
Residents and property owners along the Ogeechee have held the Screven County-based textiles plant responsible for the fish kill and said its effects have continued nearly two years later. EPD assistant director Jim Ussery and Bruce Foisy, the acting district manager of EPD’s Coastal District office in Brunswick, also faced stern criticism from the speakers.
“If this happened in your back yard,” Albert Strickland said to EPD officials, “you’d be sitting out here.”
EPD discovered that the plant had established a production line that had not been permitted, and the plant’s discharge permit had lapsed. In August, Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Judge John R. Turner overturned a ruling by a state administrative law judge that stated the Ogeechee Riverkeeper did not have standing to sue EPD.
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper has said that, under violations of the Clean Water Act, the company could have faced up to $91 million in fines. EPD has assessed a $1 million penalty to be directed toward supplemental environmental projects.
Hayes said the $1 million for the supplemental environmental projects instead should go to making sure the plant’s effluent isn’t dangerous.
EPD has outlined three projects worth $1 million in the consent order — third-party monitoring of the facility’s discharge for 18 months at a cost of $75,000; upgrades to Millen’s wastewater treatment plant for $158,609; and 36-month research project by Georgia Southern University for more than $766,000.
“This draft consent order does not provide for any penalties,” said Emily Markesteyn, the executive director of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper. “Where is the justice in that? This draft consent order (should) be withdrawn and a new consent order be negotiated that reflects the egregiousness of KAF’s conduct and degree of environmental harm and also includes provision that directly mitigate the harm.”
Under the consent order, third-party sampling will be done monthly for six months and then be conducted quarterly for the next 12 months. King America would select the independent testing firm, which must be approved by the EPD.
Ben Anderson said the company has settled out of court with more than 60 landowners, and those settlements are a tacit acknowledgement of guilt. He also said the effects from the fish kill have endured.
“There are no deer,” Anderson said. “There are no water snakes anymore. There are no alligators anymore. The fish are gone. There is no wildlife on the river.”
The river’s color and the sediment have changed colors, speakers said. Sapp said the river’s sandbars used to be white. “Now they’re all kinds of colors.”
EPD will take written comments until March 15 and Jeff Larson, the assistant chief of the Watershed Protection Branch for the Savannah and Ogeechee river basins, said the review period and any possible revisions could be expedited.