Attorneys representing the Ogeechee Riverkeeper Association filed a petition for mandamus Tuesday in Screven County Superior Court, seeking to force the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to halt a textile company’s discharge of wastewater into the Ogeechee River.
A petition for mandamus asks the court to require a public official to perform a nondiscretionary duty.
King America Finishing, located along the river near Dover, was found to have been releasing waste without a permit after an EPD investigation in May 2011, following a massive fish kill in which about 38,000 fish died downriver of the plant.
EPD officials learned the plant had violated several mandates and had not renewed its permit for several years before the investigation. A consent order to fund $1 million in river improvements was issued, but was appealed.
Earlier this year, EPD withdrew its consent order and proposed a new order. King America was allowed to continue discharging wastewater, but a new consent order will include more stringent monitoring and testing requisites.
Unsatisfied with the measures proposed, Ogeechee Riverkeeper attorneys filed the seven-page petition for mandamus, which in this case asks the court to stop the EPD from allowing King America Finishing to discharge pollutants without a permit.
"We have tried to work cooperatively with the state to force King America to follow the law, which is very clear that unpermitted discharges are illegal," says Don Stack, of the Stack & Associates law firm, based in Atlanta. "To date, however, the state has continued to allow this illegal discharge no matter the environmental harm. We therefore are going to ask the court to require EPD to do what it has been unable to do on its own."
EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said the agency will not comment on the issue.
Lee DeHihns, an attorney representing King America Finishing, said, "We are doing everything the state asks us to do" regarding the discharge. "We are not a party for this litigation."
EPD withdrew King America’s latest discharge permit pending an antidegradation analysis, but the plant continues to discharge wastewater into the Ogeechee River, Stack said.
"According to the petition, the request stems from EPD’s failure to enforce the requirements of the Clean Water Act, Georgia Water Quality Control Act and Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources’ implementing rules and regulations by allowing discharges of pollutants without a proper … permit," Stack said. "The Clean Water Act states that a … permit is required for any discharge of pollutants from any point source into waters of the United States."
If a permit is required for discharge but not obtained, the discharger is in continual violation of the Clean Water Act, he added.
"Furthermore, the Georgia Water Quality Control Act states that among the specific nondiscretionary duties of the EPD director, the director shall administer and enforce the laws of the state relating to the prevention and control of pollution."
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper asks that Georgia EPD Director Judson Turner issue an order to King America to stop discharge of pollutants into the Ogeechee River until a valid discharge permit is issued and in effect.
"Ogeechee Riverkeeper is also requesting a withdrawal of EPD’s letter dated July 19, 2011 allowing King America Finishing to make its unpermitted discharges," Stack said.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp said Wednesday she would refrain from comment at this time, but Emily Markesteyn, the executive director of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization, said: "We have an obligation and responsibility to the river basin and its people to stop illegal and harmful discharge through all available means. Filing a mandamus action asking for the Screven County Superior Court to require EPD to stop (the) illegal discharge is the best current course of action."
No one is asking that King America be closed, Stack said.
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper and its supporters simply want the river pollution to stop.
The thousands of fish that died in May 2011, succumbed to columnaris, a bacterial disease caused by environmental stress. Wedincamp and others claim the stress was caused by pollution from the plant, which includes peroxide, ammonia and formaldehyde.
A second fish kill, albeit much smaller, involving dozens of fish, occurred almost a year later.
After the massive fish kill in 2011, which occurred on Memorial Day weekend, several residents who swam or otherwise entered the river waters that weekend complained of rashes, blisters and respiratory illness. Some filed lawsuits, while several property owners along the river did the same.
Several public hearings concerning the river have taken place since then, with citizens voicing concerns about the river’s health, property value decline and other possible affects of the plant’s discharge.