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EPD chief open to holding public forum on river issues
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The state Environmental Protection Division will hold a public hearing Tuesday night on King America Finishing’s draft permit to discharge into the Ogeechee River, and agency director Jud Turner said he wants to meet with area residents soon.

Turner said he is open to conducting a forum with Ogeechee River basin residents to discuss what has happened since the fish kill nearly two years ago and what it is being done now.

“I’m going to be down in the basin and find the right forum to have a healthy conversation where we can start,” he said. “I’m not under any illusions that everybody is going to want to praise EPD at the end of the day. But we ought to work off the facts and hope we can find the right vehicles to do that.”

A white paper on the river, which was the suggestion of Effingham County Commissioner Vera Jones, was released in March. The EPD also has posted the draft permit and the consent order for King America Finishing, along with an anti-degradation analysis, on the agency’s Web site.

“It’s a good time now, I think, to have a full vetting of the issues,” Turner said.

Turner admitted the public, particularly along the Ogeechee, doesn’t believe what the EPD says and that needs to be corrected.

“It’s my view that we have some work to do to engender trust in the community about what’s going on at the river,” he said.

Tuesday’s upcoming public hearing — at Effingham County High School at 7 p.m. — is designed to take comments and not answer questions. That too has been a problem, Turner noted, since many speakers have questions but can’t get answers during the meetings. EPD representatives have met individually with residents and others to answer queries.

“I think that’s part of our problem,” Turner said. “Jim Ussery and our people stay behind and answer questions. It’s hard to get that message out.”

The EPD had a pat answer of “no comment” on press inquiries because of ongoing legal battles, according to the director. There are currently more than 60 legal actions pending against King America Finishing for the May 2011 fish kill and its aftermath. The bulk of them have been filed in Bulloch County Superior Court, and four have been filed in Fulton County Superior Court.

“I said, ‘whoa, why?’ There are some parts of some things we probably can’t say in the throes of litigation. But there’s a bunch we can,” Turner said. “I’ve been trying, since I’ve been here, even in the face of continuing litigation, to find the right vehicles to talk through the issues that even if you don’t agree, you start to have the other side of the story. For the first year and a half, it was kind of a one-sided story. Even when we do our public notices, down in the basin, when you take public comment, you don’t respond, you just listen. And it’s one-sided.”

The comments at the meetings and those that have been submitted to the EPD have been included in some of the new directives aimed at King America Finishing, Turner noted. The anti-degradation analysis was not required by the EPD but was conducted after the Ogeechee Riverkeeper requested it be performed.

“We did listen, and we can point to direct evidence where those public comments in the rule promulgation process got adjusted based on some of those (comments),” Turner said. “We took all the public comments and in some cases, the requirements got even tighter and in some cases added some requirements.”

While the proposed stipulation of third-party monitoring has received some support, other portions of the supplemental environmental projects and the fine levied against King America Finishing have been derided by river residents. Turner said the company’s discharge into the river is not at nearly the same level as it was two years ago.

“Part of what we’re doing in the SEPs is to do some third-party monitoring,” Turner said. “We don’t do that anywhere else, largely. And it’s to try to engender some trust. I hope we haven’t lost all of that trust in what we’re about.”

Turner said one of the comments he has heard is that King America was continuing to discharge into the Ogeechee without a permit.

“Technically, the permit has not been fully promulgated through all the requirements,” he said. “The implication is that we were allowing the same discharge that we found in 2011. Look,, if you want to talk about what the permit is requiring and the actual levels of discharge and some of these side issues, such as land application, I’m ready to talk about it. But if you’re under some illusion that we’re letting King America operate and discharge into the river under the exact same discharge un-cleaned up that we found in ’11, it’s just factually incorrect.”

In May 2011, more than 38,000 fish were found dead in the river downstream of King America’s discharge pipe into the river. No dead fish were found upstream of the pipe. The fish were found to have succumbed to columnaris, a bacteria activated through environmental stress.

The EPD discovered the textile plant had a fire retardant line that the company did not notify the agency about. The state eventually mandated the company accomplish $1 million in supplemental environmental projects under a consent order. The consent order was appealed and revoked because the EPD did not have adequate public notice of the order.

A public meeting was held March 5 at Effingham County High School, and the EPD will take comments on the draft permit until May 15.

Turner also said he did not foresee King America being handed a “death penalty,” ordered to cease its discharge permanently, for violating its permit.

“I’m not aware of anything, nor would I think we would put that kind of thing in a permit that if you violate it to this degree, you’re going to get the death penalty,” he said. “I don’t think that’s how we do permits.”

He also said the river has had to weather other environmental factors, such as a lengthy drought that plagued the entire state. The river flow slows down, the river itself gets shallower and there is more silt and there are dissolved oxygen problems, Turner said.

“There are few discharges and there’s a big bull’s-eye on King America Finishing, even if some of these environmental stressors are drought-related,” he said.

Turner also said a land application system, rather than a river discharge of the plant’s wastewater, is not feasible because of the area it would need to occupy. He also said the discharge — limited to 10 percent of the river’s flow under the draft permit — is much cleaner and more scrutinized than before.

“If you care about the river, I challenge you to tell me why it’s of anybody’s interest to comment on and act as if there is some great conspiracy to let King America Finishing discharge pollutants into the river to the same degree, un-cleaned up, that we found in 2011,” he said. “That’s really the implication, if not the direct accusation, and it’s factually not right. You can test the river all you want. Over time, our belief is that we will address some of that confusion and white noise.”

EPD public hearing
• When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
• Where: Effingham County High School
• What: The Georgia EPD will conduct a public hearing on the draft permit for King America Finishing to discharge treated wastewater into the Ogeechee River.