Almost a year after a major fish kill that was linked to contamination, state officials claim the Ogeechee River is safe for fishing and swimming.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp disagrees, stating recent tests show elevated levels of formaldehyde and ammonia, and another suspected spill has raised concern, she said.
While there was a problem with machinery at the plant, EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said Friday there was no spill.
About 38,000 fish died last May, sparking a series of investigations which determined King America Finishing, Inc. violated state-issued discharge permits. Many, including Wedincamp, blame pollution from the textiles treatment plant discharges for the fish kill.
The EPD issued a consent order requiring King America to fund $1 million in river improvements, including paying for third-party testing or the river’s waters.
Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn said his office has been keeping track with the river conditions and has maintained regular communication with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division regarding the matter. In a recent conversation with EPD Assistant Director Jim Ussery, he learned the state has declared the river safe for swimming as well as fishing.
Ussery assured him "that ongoing testing of the river confirms that the samples reveal that the river is meeting all federal and state in-stream water quality standards …" he said. "Bulloch County Public Safety/EMA immediately lifts all advisories previously posted on the river. I want to assure the citizens that we will continue to monitor the situation and advise if further developments occur."
However, Wedincamp said a recent report from a concerned citizen raised new concerns.
"The Ogeechee Riverkeeper contacted the EPD office in Brunswick on March 28 to report a problem at King America Finishing," said EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers. "We responded immediately and learned that the weekend of March 24-25, a computer controller on a process line failed and caused excess bi-sulfide to get into the line. The excess bi-sulfide collected in an equalization basin. The company shut down the line until the problem could be corrected. There was no spill and the incident did not cause the company to exceed permit limits."
The EPD took water samples as a precaution, and test results of the river waters after that report are pending, he said.
Wedincamp said recent testing of the waters downstream of King America showed high levels of chemicals that are found in the plant’s waste liquid, which is pumped into the river.
"We had high levels of formaldehyde and ammonia in our last report," she said.
In his communications with Wynn, Ussery said the "EPD is also very concerned with water quality in the Ogeechee River and insuring that the King America Finishing discharge is in compliance and that the river meets water quality standards."
He told Wynn, "To verify the safety of the river, acute toxic testing is done weekly. The chemical testing of the effluent is done daily and the river is sampled once per week."
The samples confirm "… the river is meeting all federal and state in-stream water quality standards for the designated uses."
The EPD Web site lists the Ogeechee River’s use as fishing, but Wynn said Ussery cleared the river for swimming as well.
Wayne Carney, who owns riverfront land in Bryan County, said he doesn’t trust the state’s advice. He has not had a fishing license in two years, because he has been unable to use the river he said is polluted.
"I’ll be damned if I pay anybody to poison me," he said.
Many people who swam in the river the weekend following the May 27 fish kill made complaints of health issues including rash and breathing problems. The river was not ruled unsafe until days after dead fish began appearing just below the King America effluent pipe.
Some citizens claiming health problems filed suit against King America in a class action lawsuit, along with others who said property values have plummeted due to the river conditions. Others have echoed Carney’s complaint about losing use of their property.
"I go down there every day," he said. "It’s just sad — I haven’t been able to use it last year at all."
He said the state’s claim that the river is safe "means absolutely nothing to me. The week after the fish kill, when they said it was OK, there were tens of thousands of rotting fish still in the river. You could shake a branch and a dozen dead fish would float out from underneath. Buzzards were on the sand bar at Steel Bridge (Landing) and it just stunk."
Wedincamp said results from recent water tests may be available this week.