U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson came to Georgia Southern University on Thursday to speak about the economy and job creation, but ended up spending most of his time discussing the plight of the Ogeechee River.
The forum was held in the GSU Nessmith-Lane Conference Center ballroom.
Fielding questions from reporters before the meeting and from members of the audience after the forum began, Isakson, R-Ga., said that while he has made sure the issue has received attention on a federal level, it would be inappropriate for him to take action because the issue is currently in litigation.
Isakson said he learned about the May 2011 fish kill, which left about 38,000 fish dead along 70 miles of the Ogeechee River, when he attended a fish fry two weeks ago in Perry, he said.
Citing several facts about the kill and numerous lawsuits against the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, King America Finishing (a Screven County textiles plant hat discharges into the river) and others, Isakson said he was concerned about the condition of the river, but felt it would be inappropriate for him to become further involved than having questioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency about the matter.
“It would be unethical for a legislator to inject himself into the (issue) at this point,” he said.
When he learned about the fish kill, he made sure the EPA was aware, he said.
After the massive fish kill, fingers began pointing toward King America Finishing, which was found to have been discharging wastewater into the Ogeechee River for five years without a permit.
EPD investigated and found several infractions aside from discharging without a permit, including testing, reporting and alarm discrepancies. Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp raised a cry after tests showed what she called “extremely high levels” of formaldehyde, ammonia and peroxide, among other pollutants.
Tests proved the thousands of fish, all found downriver from the plant, died of columnaris, a bacterial disease caused by environmental stress.
Wedincamp and others claim the stress is caused by pollutants in the King America discharge. Her organization, as well as several residents, have filed numerous lawsuits against the plant and EPD, claiming property value loss and damage, health effects to humans who swam or consumed fish from the river around the time of the fish kill, and other pertinent issues.
One legal battle stems from an Atlanta administrative law judge ruling against a legal protest by the Ogeechee Riverkeeper against the EPD.
After EPD officials determined King America had broken laws governing the discharge, the agency issued a consent order against King America, demanding $1 million in river improvement projects. Wedincamp appealed the order, claiming there had been no citizen input before the decision. When the administrative law judge ruled residents had no right to have input, another appeal filed took the case to Bulloch County Superior Court Judge John R. Turner, who overruled the administrative judge’s decision and “stayed the fine,” Isakson said. The state of Georgia has appealed Turner’s ruling.
“It’s against ethics laws for me to weigh in one way or another” at this point, he said.
When asked what the EPA is doing regarding the EPD’s failure to know King America discharged wastewater without a permit for five years, Isakson said the EPA will “monitor and oversee everything the EPD does.”
Any punitive measure against the EPD would have to come from a litigious suit, he said.
But, “The most important things is, to make sure we get the problem solved. Pollutants will eat up the oxygen in the water,” and that exacerbates other factors that lead to incidents such as the fish kills, he said.
“The EPA’s job is to ensure our water is clean and meets standards. I think we’re turning this around.”
He told Ogeechee River landowner Jimmy Hayes he would look into Hayes’ questions about King America’s discharge discoloring the river water, which is a violation of the Georgia Clean Water Act.
Isakson also answered questions about his office operations, including responses to constituents’ questions; queries about Pell and other higher education grants; Medicare questions and told one member of the crowd he supports the Second Amendment.
Banning firearms would not solve any safety issues, as “people who would use them (in a negative and dangerous way) will find a way to do it anyway,” he said.”
The tragedies involving recent mass shootings in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater and a Wisconsin Sikh temple by people wielding assault weapons were caused by people with mental illness, he added.
“I support the right to bear arms and don’t think (firearms) were the cause,” Isakson said.
Holli Deal Bragg maybe reached at (912) 489-9414.