Environmentalists are still awaiting test results for sediment, fish tissue and residue samples from the Ogeechee River after an enormous fish kill in May, while attorneys who filed a class action suit last month are awaiting answers as well.
Marietta attorney Edwin Hallman Jr. sent a letter earlier this month demanding answers from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division regarding the state agency’s response to the fish kill. In the letter, Hallman accuses textiles treatment plant King America Finishing of being responsible for the fish kill and claims the state was irresponsible in its delayed response to the situation.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianne Wedincamp said she and others still await samples of the sediment, of a silvery-white substance found on trees and logs after the alleged chemical spill around May 20, and of
tissue samples from dead fish found afterwards. However, a new concern from citizens who gathered samples from the King America discharge pipe over the weekend of June 18 and 19 will mean waiting on more test results, she said.
Citizens in the river near the discharge pipe over that weekend were disturbed to find dark blue/black liquid gushing from the pipe, she said.
Photos taken by one of the citizens, who asked not to be identified, shows the dye-darkened water near the plant.
Although some test results are still pending, Hallman said the results that have already come back prove the chemicals in the water are harmful. He said he feels the release of formaldehyde, ammonia and sodium hydroxide caused not only the death of over 33,000 fish, but caused illness in people who swam in the river over the weekend of May 20-22 as well.
In a letter to Georgia Environmental Protection Division official Jeff Larson, from the Watershed Protection Branch, Hallman wrote:
“The evidence is clear that a release from King America … caused a massive fish kill that destroyed at least 60 miles of the aquatic life in the Ogeechee River downstream from the King America outfall… also, many individuals have been physically harmed from exposure to the toxins in the river during the days following the release from the King America plant.”
He said the EPD’s response to the fish kill was inadequate.
“Through my over 30 years of practice of environmental law, I have witnessed the shutdown of commercial facilities for minor violations of environmental laws,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, in this situation, where there was an acute fish kill and a clear threat to human health and welfare, no such actions have occurred.”
Aside from the massive numbers of dead fish of several types, people lodged complaints with various health agencies including having blisters, rashes, diarrhea and nausea after having swam in the river the weekend after May 20.
One of three initial clients in the class action lawsuit Hallman filed reported severe breathing and other respiratory issues after having swam in the river that weekend, he said.
“Beginning on May 20, 2011, the United states Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the EPD were well aware of the point of impact on the Ogeechee was directly downstream of the outfall from the King America plant,” he said in the letter.
He also stated that EPD officials should be concerned that King America emergency contacts did not answer calls or respond to messages for over 24 hours after the first attempt at contact was made.
Another concern was that EPD officials were unable to enter the King America plant until May 23, more than three days after the fish kill was discovered.
“The circumstances as they developed, and the incredible extent of damages to the river and its environs, demanded a shutdown of the facility. The circumstances also demand a full investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Georgia Attorney General’s Office, and the parallel federal agencies of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Department of Justice.”
While a Florida newspaper reported this week that the EPD was investigating the fish kill along with the Attorney General’s Office, EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers clarified things by telling the Statesboro Herald Wednesday that the EPD only sought legal advice from the Attorney General’s office regarding comments made about the investigation.
Details of the investigation cannot be released while the case remains open, he said.
In Hallman’s letter, he asks why King America Finishing employees were not put under oath and questioned about incidents and practices at the plant, including knowledge about releases.
He also asked why federal and state agencies have not conducted a forensic audit of the plant, including deliveries of commodities and records of processes that could divulge clues regarding the alleged release of chemicals into the river.
He also asked, when chemicals found in test samples matched chemicals used in the plant’s textiles treatment process, why there were not orders for King America to “disclose all cradle-to-grave handling and use of all hazardous materials, including but not limited to, ammonia, formaldehyde, sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid?”
There is a “concept in the law called ‘res ipsa loquitur,’ which means ‘the thing speaks for itself,” he wrote. “In this case, there is simply no logical or plausible source and cause of the Ogeechee River fish kill than King America … The Ogeechee River, once pristine waters, has now been reduced to a cesspool of dead aquatic life and a dumping ground for King America’s discarded hazardous materials.”
Hallman said many other people who claim to have been affected by the river’s pollutants that weekend, as well as land owners along the river near the plant, feel there is a cover-up of some sort.
“The failure of the federal and state agencies to engage in a real investigation of King America creates the well-founded suspicion of our multitudes of clients, who believe that there is a government-endorsed effort to shield King America from punishment,” he wrote.
“This is an egregious violation of the public trust by the very agencies that are mandated to hold King America responsible,” he said. “It is the duty of the EPD to protect the citizens and the environment of the State of Georgia. In this case it appears the EPD has failed its duty.”
Chambers said the EPD would not comment on Hallman’s letter, citing the reason as the case remains under investigation. While no violations have been yet reported, King America has yet to be cleared of responsibility, he said in earlier interviews.
Congressman John Barrow, during a visit to the Statesboro Herald Tuesday, said “I am in no position to judge (the way EPD has responded to the incident).
“What I do know is, if the job is being done right, they will not be advertising or telegraphing their moves because this is a serious case to bring against someone. “
He said he understood the public’s concern. “I think it is atrocious what happened and whoever did it should be made to pay to the fullest extent of the law.”
Phone calls to King America Finishing seeking comment have not been returned.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.