SPRINGFIELD — The message was clear Tuesday night as people interested in the Ogeechee River demanded that Environmental Protection Division officials not issue a discharge permit to a textiles plant many have blamed for two fish kills within the past year. The first occurred in May 2011, killing tens of thousands of fish. A year later, dozens were found dead on Memorial Day.
About 150 people filled the Effingham County High School auditorium for the public hearing on a draft permit the EPD is considering issuing King America Finishing, which adds flame retardant and other processes to woven fabric.
EPD representative Jane Hendricks, who manages the EPD program that issues permits for wastewater discharge, reminded the audience that there would be no questions answered, except by written statement at a later date.
“We’ve proposed several changes to the permit to protect water quality,” she said. Five new limits are being added; nine new effluent parameters are being included and six other limits are “being made more stringent,” she said.
The proposed permit has increased requirements regarding biochemical oxygen demand, chemical oxygen demand, sulfites, chromium and a maximum pH level, she said.
There are new limits on the release of ammonia, nitrogen, formaldehyde, whole-effluent toxicity and the volume of wastewater. New effluent parameters include limits on phosphorous, nitrogen, sodium peroxide, temperature and color.
Many complaints about the discharge into the river include the fact that the effluent discolors the water.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp has said the river water color near the King America discharge pipe has been dark blue at times. Hendricks said a color study is needed before setting color limits.
More than 25 residents signed up to speak during the hearing, and none supported the permit. Many demanded that EPD not issue a permit for discharging wastewater into the river at all.
“We are against the permit in several categories,” said William B. Hunter, who owns riverfront property at Shearhouse Landing in Brooklet. “King America Finishing has clearly demonstrated their inability to comply with EPD guidelines.”
He said the massive fish kill in May 2011, which caused about 38,000 fish to float to the surface after dying of columnaris, a bacterial disease caused by environmental stress, was not the first time there was a major fish kill.
“That plant has been dumping (waste) since 1965, and one (fish kill) occurred in 1965.”
Wayne Carney, who lives in Eldora and owns riverfront property, provided EPD officials with a petition signed by 3,000 people. Others offered petitions as well.
He asked several questions, including why EPD allows the plant to “self-monitor,” and listed the chemicals discharged by the plant as poisons.
“How can we put this stuff in the river and say we’re protecting the environment?” he asked, suggesting people stop buying fishing licenses and demand tax value reductions on their river property. “Allowing the permit to be issued will ruin the Ogeechee River. These people here are not going to take it anymore.”
Brooklet resident Joe Watson said, “I’ve grown up on this river, and it’s unbelievable how we’re watching a chemistry set of poisons people are trying to say is OK to dump in the river. People know it’s not OK. Don’t issue the permit. Do not issue the permit.”
Jim Hayes said he doesn’t even let his dog swim in the river at his Stilson property.
“This issue has been boiling as long as the plant has been there,” he said. “The chemicals are killing us.”
He said he would sue King America if the chemicals leached onto his property interfere with his organic farming permit.
Hutton Brown, an attorney with Greenlaw and Associates, who represents several involved in lawsuits regarding the river pollution, said Auburn University biologists have linked King America’s discharge to the “largest fish kill in Georgia history.”
It is common sense, he said.
“There were zero dead fish above the discharge pipe, 38,000 below the discharge. There is no other reasonable explanation” because of the location of the dead fish, he said. “Why can’t these dots be connected?”
Alfred Driggers, of Eden, complained about the 2011 fish kill backing up into the Canoochee River and about chemicals settling into the river bed.
Wedincamp also spoke, bringing up the topic of endangered species of fish and other wildlife threatened by the toxins released into the water.
The Robust Red Horse is one species that is endangered, and there are efforts to bring it back to the Ogeechee, but the pollutants discharged into the river will thwart that effort, she said.
“We are going to fight this to the end,” she said. “Discharge cannot happen in our river.”
Will Monroe, who lives near Ga. 119 along the river, said birds, including bald eagles and swallowtail kites, also are endangered.
“It’s a total ecosystem effect,” he said.
Statesboro resident Glen Collins, who owns land at Ogeechee Forest Landing, said, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what happened” when there are no dead fish found upriver of the King America discharge pipe, but were found more than once downriver. “It’s obvious what they (King America) are doing, and they just don’t care.”
He said a pair of eagles once lived on his property, but have not been seen since the 2011 fish kill — nor have any redheaded woodpeckers.
“Graveyard dead — that is what the river is now,” he said.
Trust in the textiles plant is nonexistent, he said.
“We’ve got where we don’t trust y’all (EPD) either,” Monroe said. “There’s a cover-up going on somewhere, and the citizens along this river are tired of it.”
Mike Smith said he lives on the Savannah River, but once worked at another textiles plant in Screven County that paid the city of Sylvania to treat its wastewater. King America should do the same, he said.
Attorney Richard Wingate, of Hallman and Wingate, another law firm handling suits against King America, said EPD expectations for the plant to monitor itself are unrealistic.
“We have a company with a known track record for noncompliance, and permits allow it to police itself,” he said. “Does EPD deny that King America Finishing caused that fish kill? I look forward to your answer.”
King America Finishing was found in violation of permits after the 2011 fish kill, and EPD issued a consent order that the plant pay $1 million in river improvements. The Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization has appealed that ruling.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.