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Class action, Riverkeeper suits moving ahead
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Attorney Ed Hallman talks about the status of the class action suit filed on behalf of landowners and others affected by the May Ogeechee River fish kill. Three plaintiffs have signed on with the class action suit, which could eventually cover more than 700 people. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

Two lawsuits pending against a Screven County textile facility alleged to be the source of a massive May fish kill on the Ogeechee River are moving forward — and plaintiffs in one case are hoping to move the suit back to the state level.

A class action suit against King America Finishing has been filed, though it has been moved to the U.S. District Court in Atlanta from Fulton County Superior Court. In a separate procedure, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper has filed an intent to sue under the Clean Water Act.

“Our clients’ position is that the river has been terribly polluted,” said Jim Carter, an attorney with Hurt, Stolz and Cromwell, out of Athens. “It’s done damage to property and done damage to wildlife and game and all that’s affected the value of the property. We believe the landowners are entitled to compensation for the diminished value of their property and any other remedies.”

Listed as plaintiffs are Ben H. Anderson, Parker Freeman and Adam Bath. Carter said there are approximately 700 people similarly situated as the three plaintiffs and if the judge certifies the class, then the suit against King America Finishing would cover all the affected parties, even if they do not sign on as plaintiffs.

Ed Hallman of Hallman and Wingate, a Marietta law firm specializing in environmental cases, said the Ogeechee Riverkeeper’s case is to require King America Finishing to clean up the river. He, along with Jim Hurt of Hurt, Stotlz and Cromwell, are representing the class action plaintiffswith the Riverkeeper’s proceedings, though it may have an impact on their case.

“What the Riverkeeper is doing is of great benefit to all of us because that case can drive the issue of what has to be done out there to remediate it,” Hallman said. “The class action is separate; it represents all impacted people. It’s basically a full frontal attack on what happened on the river.”

Cleanup of the river is important, Hallman said, but the source of the pollution also must be stopped.

“It’s a total ignoring of the law, and we don’t know why,” he said. “We have to get to the bottom of it.”

Said Carter: “It’s still to a great extent a mystery exactly what chemicals went in. What we do know is that above the outfall, the river seems to be fine; below the outfall, the river is dead.”

The widespread death of more than 38,000 fish from the bacteria columnaris was observed 50 feet from the plant’s discharge pipe and continuing downstream. No such fish kill was observed upstream of the plant’s outfall.

Traces of formaldehyde have been found in the river, and that chemical is used in the plant’s processes. But there are no standards for how much formaldehyde is allowable in the river “because it’s not supposed to be there,” Hallman said. “The problem is, it’s going into the river at levels that are dangerous.”

Approximately 40 people were at the Guyton Civic Center on Monday to hear the status of the cases and one of the questions asked was what can be done to stop King America Finishing from discharging into the Ogeechee.

“One thing that has been considered but has not been done is filing an injunction to stop King America from continuing this behavior,” Hallman said. “There are some individual cases that may be filed soon that might seek that injunction. We hope that happens soon.”

Hallman, Wedincamp and those in attendance also questioned why the state Environmental Protection Division and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency haven’t stepped in.

The two proposed classes to be covered by the suit, Hurt said, are all the property owners along the Ogeechee who have been affected by this chemical release and all the personal injury victims who have been exposed directly or indirectly to the chemicals in the water by either being in the water or eating the fish in that water.

Hurt added that anyone affected has a right to file their own action.