A public hearing on a draft permit for King America Finishing to discharge wastewater into the Ogeechee River drew about 250 people to Effingham County High School on Tuesday, including 45 who stepped to the microphone to share their opinions.
All 45 — including property owners along the river, local business owners, attorneys and board members of the watchdog group Ogeechee Riverkeeper — urged the Environmental Protection Division to deny the permit to the Screven County textiles plant.
“Is there anyone here to speak on behalf of this permit?” attorney Richard Wingate asked the audience.
“Let the record show that no one responded positively,” said Wingate, whose firm, Hallman and Wingate, has filed a class-action lawsuit against King America Finishing.
That is one of several lawsuits filed after 38,000 fish died last May in the Ogeechee River, downstream from King America Finishing’s discharge pipe. The company was found to have violated discharge mandates and was ordered by the EPD to pay $1 million toward river improvements, but was allowed to remain in operation while self-monitoring its discharge.
“The fish kill a year ago was a travesty. It was a rape of our environment, and the fact that we’re considering continuing down that same road would seem to me to meet the definition of idiocy,” said Ogeechee Riverkeeper board member Charles Lewis.
“The Environmental Protection Division of our state has allowed a corporation to come into a once-pristine body of water and has given them carte blanche to pollute at will,” said Connie Hayes of Stilson. “The fact remains, laws have been broken and a government agency has been derelict in its duties to the citizens of the state.”
Hayes was one of several people who urged the EPD to require a third, unbiased party to monitor King America Finishing’s wastewater discharge.
“When we’re allowing King America Finishing to monitor their own pollution that’s going into the river, it seems to me like we’re putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” Lewis said.
“We’ve heard that loud and clear — folks want third-party testing. Part of the process is to factor that in,” Jim Ussery, assistant director of the EPD, said following the public hearing.
Jane Hendricks, EPD’s manager of wastewater permitting and enforcement, attended the meeting along with Ussery, but neither responded to any of the public’s questions or criticisms. Rather, the EPD will reply in writing to every person who commented, Ussery said.
The EPD will take public comment regarding the draft permit through June 26. Ussery had no estimate on when the EPD would rule on the permit, since the agency will have to go through all the comments and respond to them first.
“We had 500 comments before we left Atlanta (to come here),” Ussery said. “The community has been impacted, and I would expect there to be a lot of interest.”
A common theme throughout the hearing was the impact that the EPD’s ruling will have on local business. If the plant were to be shut down, approximately 400 people would reportedly lose their jobs.
However, several speakers said greater damage has already been done by King America Finishing — and would continue to be done — to people who live and work along the Ogeechee River. Jimmy Hayes said that would be detrimental to his Brooklet business, Healthy Hollow Farms, where he grows organic produce, peanuts and grains.
“If I lose my certification because of the chemicals from this plant on my property, I think the plant and EPD are going to be liable. I do believe that’ll make another lawsuit,” he said.
Connie Shreve owns Ogeechee Outpost, a canoe and kayak tour company, and said business is so bad that “we have barely rented a boat. We have had a lot of people want to go look for dead fish or do studies.” She added that, in the wake of last year’s fish kill, she had to cancel her annual canoe camp for children.
“I talked to the EPD this week and they told me it is safe to swim in the river and it is safe to go fishing, so I want the EPD to send their kids to my summer camp this year,” Shreve said.
A year after the largest fish kill in Georgia history, a handful of fish turned up dead in the Ogeechee River on Memorial Day weekend of this year. Ogeechee Riverkeeper board of directors chair Ann Hartzell said she monitored the river that weekend and, rather than seeing it bustling with people, it was just “deserted landings” and “eerie silence.”
“I almost had to laugh when, in the aftermath of this year’s fish kill, one EPD official pointed out the smaller number of fish that turned up dead this year,” Hartzell said. “How many fish are there left to kill after last year?”
Hartzell encouraged the EPD “to go back to the drawing board on the permit and issue a permit with teeth, one that much more drastically limits what King America Finishing is allowed to release in their wastewater.”
Some of the speakers were more animated than others. Retired commercial fisherman Phil Odom held up a coin, illustrating that the economy and the environment are different sides of the same coin.
“We have a sick environment and we have a sick economy,” Odom said. “At this point in time, Georgia EPD has the opportunity to apply guidance from all the regional water plans in the Ogeechee River basin and the best science available to protect the waters that the laws of the state of Georgia say belong to the people.”
Wayne Carney, who owns property on the river, handed Ussery “3,000 signatures of people that don’t want this to happen,” along with bumper stickers that he had printed. Carney suggested the bumper stickers — with a skull and crossbones logo and the words “No Deal” and “Remember the Ogeechee River!” — be given to EPD director Judson Turner and Gov. Nathan Deal.
“We want them to understand that, if this doesn’t work out for us, y’all are going to be working on a fixed income – and I’m talking about unemployment,” he said.
Carney then urged people who fish in the Ogeechee River to stop buying fishing licenses: “Why would you want to pay somebody to poison you?”
Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp also presented a list of signatures — “more than a thousand signatures collected over the past couple days” — of people opposed to the permit being granted.
“Our mission is to make sure the voice of the people is heard,” she said.