Nearly 500 people packed into the Effingham County Middle School cafeteria Tuesday night to hear from the state Environmental Protection Division why tens of thousands fish died in the Ogeechee River.
What they didn’t hear was who bore the responsibility for the massive fish kill, though many in attendance believe a Screven County facility is culpable.
In a meeting marked with frustration and anger from residents of several counties along the Ogeechee River, EPD officials and state lawmakers discussed what led to nearly all of the river’s marine life being wiped out for an 80-mile stretch three weeks ago.
Officials from EPD and the Wildlife Resources Divison of the DNR reported on the initial effects of the fish kill and the ongoing investigation of potential stressors that could have made the fish susceptible to columnaris, a naturally occurring bacterial disease determined to be the kill agent.
Tim Barrett, who manages WRD fisheries, reported that the kill, ranging from 50-100 yards below King America Finishing’s discharge effluent to Highway 204, killed approximately 33,000 fish across 15 different species.
Bruce Foisy of the Coastal District EPD has been heading the investigation at King Finishing, and he said that thus far there are no “obvious” signs of a “catastrophic release” at the plant.
“This is a puzzle that is still being put together,” Foisy said. “I think a lot will be shown by the data that we receive from that sampling from that outfall, and sampling that we’ve done on the river.”
The results of these samples were not available as of Tuesday.
Foisy said they’d examined two sludge ponds and dikes for the ponds, a landfill nearby, the wastewater treatment plant for King America Finishing and have sampled the outfall and resampled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s stations along the kill zone.
“We have looked at the wastewater treatment plant and we continue to look at the wastewater treatment plant,” Foisy said. “We’ve talked to people, we’ve reviewed records and we continue to review records.”
He said the dyed floor drains to insure proper routing of drains inside the plant and that they’ve investigated every lead they’ve come across, including a breach of the sludge pond dykes and a pipe at Jackson Branch that they confirmed has been sealed over a year.
“This is a continuing investigation at King America Finishing because so much time we’ve gone in there, (yet) we’ve not seen signs of what we call catastrophic release,” Foisy said.
But residents continued to express their displeasure at how the EPD handled the fish kill.
“You weren’t able to get a hold of anyone from King America Finishing for 16 to 18 hours?” Don Stack asked EPD representatives. “You’ve got a guy in the field trying to establish the scope of the spill. You can see it 50 yards down the river. And nobody says, ‘how do we get into the plant?’
“You are not required to issue permits,” Stack said. “You are required to issue permits that are protective of the environment and the people. You don’t do it based on inaccurate information.”
Larson said if the plant has a change in its processes that is beyond its permit, the plant needs to let the EPD know.
Dianna Wedincamp said the Ogeechee Riverkeeper also had photos taken from a flyover of the river, which the EPD did not perform. Wedincamp found about the problem Saturday night and said she was out there collecting water samples Sunday morning.
She inquired of the EPD why water samples were not taken earlier.
Hunter told EPD officials that the quality of the stream has to be the same leaving his property as it is entering it. He castigated the EPD for allowing the pollution to occur.
“If there is a statute that allows you to pollute my property, we certainly would like to have a copy of it,” he said. “What you’re doing upstream is violating my property rights.”
Many residents called for the EPD to shut down the plant — the fish kill was detected downstream from the plant’s outfall pipe but not upstream from the pipe.
“Can we get this industry off the river? That’s what we all want,” said longtime river watcher William Joseph Hunter. “Why wasn’t the pipe removed? We want it removed. Let’s get our river back to where it was.”
EPA reports released Monday evening indicate that ammonia, hydrogen peroxide and formaldehyde were detected in the surface water and that “Formaldehyde was also detected at levels of potential concern in the sediment.”
The report says that formaldehyde, a chemical associated permanent press coatings on fabrics at textile plants, which is one of the treatments offered at King Finishing, but that it is known to readily biodegrade in 1-3 days. However, the chemical was also found above the King Finishing outfall.
Surface water levels exceeded chronic screening levels by more than five times near the plant and the report stated that
“Exceedence of the chronic screening value implies that there is potential risk to sensitive aquatic species if exposed to those levels for extended periods of time. Sediment levels were deemed three times the value of “serious contamination.”
Joe Kane, representing industrial permitting in the state, said that they’re “requested King Finishing send us a new permit application.”
“The new data we’ve got and the data King Finishing presents in its new permit application, we’ll evaluate it to see what exactly needs to be done with the discharge permit,” Kane said
Kane indicated that the discharge permit may tighten on the plant.
To this a voice from the crowd exclaimed “There should be nothing put in that river,” and the crowd erupted in applause.
A class action lawsuit was filed Tuesday morning against King America Finishing, its president, Michael Albert Beasley and the plant manager Billy T. Parrish. As filed, three clients claimed person injury and property damages from contaminants released by the Screven County textile plant.
State draws fire for response
EPD officials said there is no formaldehyde in the river as of May 31. The EPD’s Bert Langley also said the EPA found formaldehyde in the river upstream from King American Finishing.
“Formaldehyde is a poison, no question about it,” he said. “But as with any poison, it’s the dose that makes the poison. Personally, I have no issue with being in the water right there.”
Langley, however, drew an angry response from the crowd when it was said no one in the audience wanted to swim in a river full of dead fish.
“We said the river was safe for swimming,” he replied, adding, “we didn’t presume people would be dumb enough to swim with a bunch of dead fish.” Langley later said he wasn’t serious with that remark.
The EPD was a frequent target of criticism from citizens during the question and answer session.
“What we need to do is make you do your job,” Hunter told the EPD representatives. “Your predecessors did a good job of screwing up the whole thing, and they trained you well. You say you haven’t found a smoking gun. Well, I think you found it — it’s you.”
Fulton Love, owner of Love’s Seafood on the banks of the Ogeechee River at the Bryan-Chatham county line, said he didn’t buy the EPD’s contention that it was understaffed. He said the EPD should be checking invoices at King America Finishing to see what chemicals and processes it is using, and he implored the lawmakers there to do something.
“What are our state officials going to do about this?” he asked. “If you need to make a change in the law, then now’s the time for y’all to stand up and be recognized.”
State Sen. Buddy Carter (R-Pooler) said lawmakers will look at making changes to the state code.
“If it requires legislation to get this fixed, I promise you, we will try to get it passed,” he said. “There’s more work that needs to be done, and we need your help to get it done.”
Said state Rep. Jon Burns: “If there are changes that can be made legislatively, we need to look into it. First and foremost is making sure industry is following the letter of the law and doing what their permit tells them to do.”
Restocking the river a priority
Burns said lawmakers also were concerned about the slow response in shutting down the river once the fish kill was observed and added lawmakers could look at reclassifying the river as recreational. EPD leaders said they will restock the river, which the EPD rarely has done in the past.
“Restocking the river is a top priority right now,” Burns said.
Species killed initially were weaker breeds, such as sunfish, which made up a majority of the dead fish. But as days passed, Barrett said they found hardier species, such as gar and mudfish, had succumbed as well.
Barrett said that his division typically avoids stocking waters, but that they were making an exception in this case.
“I don’t think the sun had set Saturday (May 21) before we were making plans to make an exception to restock the river,” he said.
He said that although they have begun growing for the restock, low flows and dry basins make it unlikely for citizens to see the replenished fish stock for another year and a half to two years.
“It’s not gonna happen in six months, but in a year and a half or two, as far as catfish and redbreast, you should be able to tell a big difference,” Barrett said.
Larson said the EPD is waiting on more data from its tests.