ATLANTA — A bill introduced late in last year’s General Assembly session is getting support from environmental groups as it comes back before state legislators.
House Bill 549, sponsored by state Rep. Jon Burns, calls for the state to establish emergency response procedures to instances of water pollution. Introduced after crossover day, it couldn’t be voted on by both chambers. The Ogeechee Riverkeeper and the Georgia Water Coalition support the bill, which also calls for quick public notification and coordination with state and local agencies.
“He pointed out a weakness in EPD,” said Russ Pennington, state Environmental Protection Division director of policy and public affairs, of Burns’ bill.
Burns said the EPD and environmental groups will comment on the bill while it’s in committee and its impacts will not be restricted to the Coastal Empire.
“It doesn’t affect just what happened on the Ogeechee,” he said. “It’s a statewide bill.”
The state had a team of full-time staff dedicated to responding to emergencies and complaints about 10 years ago, Pennington said. That team became an emergency response network.
“Last year, we re-engaged the emergency response teams,” Pennington said. “We now have seven people in the district offices and in Atlanta and that’s all they do.”
Pennington also said the discharge permit approved in November for King America Finishing is “the the most highly-regulated permit in the state of Georgia.”
“The permit is much more stringent than the old permit,” said Jeff Larson, EPD chief for the Savannah-Ogeechee watershed.
A consent agreement also called for the textiles plant, considered the culprit behind the May 2011 incident that killed 38,000 fish on the Ogeechee River, to spend $1.3 million in supplemental environmental projects. One of the projects funded through the SEPs is an upgrade to the city of Millen’s wastewater treatment plant.
There also will be third-party testing of the plant’s discharge, and Larson explained an independent contractor will come in unannounced to sample and check the validity of King America’s own results.
But Effingham County Commissioner Steve Mason, whose 3rd District includes a long stretch of the Ogeechee River, said he’s still hearing from constituents who are unhappy with the agreement reached between King America and the Ogeechee Riverkeeper.
“I still have people who won’t eat fish out of that river and won’t drink water along the river,” he said. “I still have some concerns.”
Mason asked why the Millen sewage treatment plant was included in the supplemental environmental projects.
“Most people were expecting some kind of reparation to the river,” he said. “Right now, most people are still pretty upset about this. I still get people who are upset and feel like their voice wasn’t heard in the hearings. With the acceptance of this from King America, I tend to agree with them.”
“A SEP can be anything in the basin that will improve water quality,” Larson said, “whether it’s up or downstream. King selected Millen, and we reviewed the selection. Anyone could have come before and said I can assist with water quality.”
The consent decree, now finalized by U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, also called for a $2.5 million contribution to the Riverkeeper. It also spelled out a Georgia Southern University and Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy research project, including studying how drought and floods affect the river. Mason, though, said he’s heard questions about what the study is supposed to do.
“Most people feel ‘why are we studying what happened? We know what happened,’” he said. “’Why aren’t we restocking the river, something we can touch?’”
Larson said the great benefit from the consent agreement will be the research done on the river and what affects it. The study won’t delve into what happened, he continued, but it could set up ways to identify pitfalls.
There is a 36-month schedule to develop an early warning system for the Ogeechee, and the research will explore the biology, geography and climate to set up a matrix that could show potential hazardous situations.
“From that, the river is going to benefit in the long run,” Larson said.
Larson said the EPD supports the research initiative, and Georgia Southern will set up a Web site with data and results available for public view.
“The big item is the Ogeechee River study,” he added. “We’re trying to make the Georgia Southern study get legs. It’s not an easy road back. But we’re on the road to it.”
The river’s water level at the time of the fish kill exacerbated the problem, according to Pennington.
“We have come to a large step with King America,” he said. “We are no longer in drought in the Ogeechee River, and that helped as much as anything.”
Larson also commended Effingham County for working with the state and South Carolina on other water quality issues, especially salt water intrusion and the total maximum daily load levels for the Savannah River harbor deepening project.
“They are all getting along, and it makes my job a lot easier when people pull together,” he said. “It’s a real good message from Effingham and Chatham.”