Source: http://savannahnow.com, September 22, 2011
By: Mary Landers
King America Finishing has agreed to fund $1 million worth of environmental projects on the Ogeechee River as part of a consent order prompted by a massive fish kill in May.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division executed the order Wednesday after investigations into the fish kill revealed the textile finishing company had for five years been making unauthorized discharges of flame retardant chemicals into the black water stream in Screven County.
“This will be largest settlement of this type in Georgia,” said Jim Ussery, EPD assistant director. An estimated 38,000 fish of about 15 species died in the fish kill, making it the largest such event in state history, Ussery said.
In a prepared statement issued by King America’s legal representative, Lee DeHihns of Alston and Bird, the company is described as an “environmental steward” with 450 employees.
“We are not aware of any operations by King America Finishing that would have adversely affected water quality or the fish in the Ogeechee River,” the statement reads.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp said she and attorneys for her nonprofit are still reviewing the 22-page order before deciding whether to go forward with a planned lawsuit against King America.
“The pollution from King America Finishing is a serious threat to the health and safety of local families and river wildlife. We are grateful to EPD for acting on this situation,” she said in a written statement. “We like the $1 million figure; it’s a warning bell that every other polluter along the Ogeechee River should hear loud and clear.”
Inspections reveal violations
EPD officials discovered the unauthorized discharges during inspections that followed the fish kill, which was reported May 20. The plant was targeted because dead fish began appearing about 50 yards downstream of the plant’s discharge pipe. No dead fish were found above the pipe.
Testing revealed the fish died of columnaris, a bacterial disease that’s deadly when fish are weakened by other stressors.
In May and June, inspections at the plant revealed a flame retardant production line EPD was previously unaware of, despite six inspections that occurred after the line began operating in 2006 and before the fish kill. King America failed to report to EPD that it was discharging from this new line, a requirement under its permit.
“Since they never notified us the folks who inspected never picked it up,” Ussery said. “Should they have picked it up? They should have picked it up.”
EPD shut down the flame retardant line from June 17 to July 19. It’s been restarted with modifications, including the decanting of ammonia to remove that toxic component from the discharge.
Too little, too late
The sanctions were too little too late for many swimmers, paddlers and fishermen along the popular black water river.
“Upgrades are nice, but the upgrade I want to see them make is for the pipe to do a U-turn and put it at the top of the hill or install enough filtration systems to get it out of there.” said Wayne Carney, who has riverfront property in Bryan County.
“People haven’t been able go in the water. If they get in the water there’s no telling when something’s going to come by that ain’t gonna be good for them.”
Businesses like Connie Shreve’s Ogeechee Outpost have been devastated. Labor Day drew only two boaters.
Some swimmers have reported blisters and sores on their skin. On Friday, officials in Effingham and Bulloch counties said low water levels and flow have created stagnant areas where bacteria can flourish.
Wedincamp, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, said the lack of rain is only part of the picture.
“It’s because of the drought and because there’s too much pollution going in and it’s not diluted enough,” she said.
Wedincamp and volunteers have been conducting biweekly water tests since the fish kill, at a cost of $2,000 each round. The tests continue to show the presence of pollutants, including formaldehyde, only in the water below the outfall for the plant.
But EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said daily samples taken by EPD since the restart of the flame retardant line in late July have all met water quality standards.
Why not a fine?
EPD is requesting the “supplemental environmental projects” instead of a fine to help target the river’s restoration, Ussery said.
“What happens with fines is they go to the state treasury and are used for whatever the state needs them for,” Ussery said. “Our hope is with the supplemental environmental projects is that improvements could be made in the environment of the river and for the benefit of those most impacted.”
Examples of acceptable projects would include city or county wastewater upgrades, stream bank restoration or the purchase and donation to local counties of conservation easements along the river. King America could opt to pay all or part of the $1 million in cash. The EPD could also require a cash payment if the projects are not acceptable. The company has 90 days to come up with a plan. Upon approval, it has 18 months to carry it out.
The Georgia Water Quality Act allows for fines of up to $50,000 a day for violations. Because alleged violations at King America Finishing date back to 2006, total possible fines exceed $91 million. But aiming for such a large fine would likely have resulted in lengthy litigation, Ussery said.
Still, citizens like Carney are skeptical of how wisely the $1 million will be spent.
“They can hire me go out with a dustpan and a broom for $1,000 a day, that’s how that’s going work,” he said.
Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring called the consent order a “shameful evasion of responsibility by EPD.”
“The order effectively converts the polluter into a corporate ‘Lady Bountiful,’ doing good works up and down the Ogeechee River, instead of being punished for its massive damage to the natural resource,” he said. “It seems like somebody ought to go to jail. It just doesn’t seem like there’s incentive not to do this again.