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EPD chief: Ogeechee cleaner, safer than in 2011
jud turner 1
State EPD director Jud Turner spoke to local business and government leaders last week about what has transpired on the Ogeechee River in the last two years. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

The director of the state Environmental Protection Division told Effingham County government and community leaders that the discharge from a Screven County textiles plant is being held to a much higher standard.

Turner, meeting with several Effingham County community and government leaders, said the limitations proposed on King America Finishing’s discharge are more stringent han beforehand.

“We are hopeful and confident that the river is in pretty good shape right now,” he said. “What we’re doing with King America is the most restrictive, most protective permit in Georgia.”

A consent order issued against the textile plant levied $1 million in fines that will be spent on supplemental environmental projects, or SEPs. Turner said the SEPs could not be items that would bring the plant into compliance with the Clean Water Act.

He also explained that the $1 million fine, because of the SEPs, would be spent on the river and would not be directed back to the state treasury, where it could be spent for something else.

“There was a lot of discussion if that fine had been sufficiently punitive enough for the acts that occurred on the river,” Turner said. “I was convinced that it was. If you count EPA’s fine for Atlanta, it’s the second-largest water fine in Georgia ever and the fourth-largest water fine in the country.”

Turner acknowledged King America could have been fined up to $90 million for each day the unpermitted fire-retardant line was discharging into the river. But he said it would have been unlikely the state would have ever collected that amount.

“And you wouldn’t have those 500 jobs,” he said, referring the estimated workforce at King America Finishing.

The EPD did not know about the additional fire-retardant line that had been discharging into the river without a permit until after the fish kill, and the company’s discharge permit had been extended administratively.

Turner, who has been EPD director since January 2012, opted to re-do the consent order after it was challenged. Critics charged it should have been put up for public notice, and Turner said the decision not to make a public notice for the consent order was made before he took office.

He also directed that the draft permit originally issued in August 2012 was withdrawn after challenges were made that an anti-degradation analysis should have been completed.

“Historically, we have never done an anti-deg analysis for an existing permittee,” Turner said. “Nonetheless, I decided, that discretion was the better part of valor and we pulled that permit back.”

The anti-degradation analysis, typically done for new discharge permits that will degrade a water body’s quality, also allowed the agency to show that a land application system for King America’s treated wastewater was not feasible.

“Land application has been the big question,” he said.

Under the anti-degradation analysis, using a land application system for all of King America Finishing’s treated wastewater discharge would require 6,000 acres and be cost-prohibitive, Turner pointed out.

“To do land application across the board is not easy to get right,” said Turner, who was Gov. Sonny Perdue’s executive counsel in the tri-state “water wars” negotiations. “You have to spend significant dollars on the infrastructure and the upkeep. You can’t let your sprayfields fall into disarray. It’s not a simple solution, either.”

While the earlier draft permit had a restriction on flow, the redone draft permit limits the plant’s discharge to 10 percent of the river flow, and Turner said there is a maximum on how much discharge can go into the river.

“The permit has overall mass load requirements,” he said. “You can’t bust the cap. There are some very good things about this permit.”

In times when the river flow is much lower and the plant may not be able to keep its discharge to no more than 10 percent, Turner said King America has two options — store it onsite until the river flow rises or cease operations.

Under the terms of the SEP, the plant also must engage a third party to monitor its discharge. Even though the SEP has yet to be finalized, that stipulation has been put in place, Turner pointed out.

Turner also said the EPD will look into where King America conducts its monitoring of its discharge.

He also reiterated that the current discharge is not the same as it was two years ago, when a massive fish kill led to the deaths of more than 38,000 fish.

“This has been the single hardest issue to build trust in and confidence in, and that was what is happening on the river right now, since there has not been a fully promulgated permit,” Turner said.

He said the sampling data shows the discharge levels are much lower and are in line with a July 2011 letter to King America from the EPD.