An state administrative hearings judge ruled Tuesday that the Ogeechee Riverkeeper has no standing to bring a case about the Ogeechee River.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp said Wednesday she was rendered "almost speechless" by Judge Lois Oakley’s ruling.
Wedincamp said the ruling denies the public the right to protest the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s response to the May 2011 fish kill that left approximately 38,000 fish dead.
Oakley said there was no proof that the EPD was the cause of any harm to the public.
The ruling concluded that, "The Petitioner has failed to establish that the Consent Order has caused or will cause itself or its members injury. Accordingly, the Petitioner has failed to satisfy the statutory requisites for standing."
"I think the judge is way out of touch with the citizens of this state," Wedincamp said.
When the fish kill occurred in May 2011, investigations pointed to King America Finishing, a Screven County textiles plant, as the cause.
When EPD officials found the plant in violation of discharge permits, their response was inadequate, Wedincamp said.
"The rivers belong to the people, not to the state," she said. "They definitely have a voice in what goes on with our rivers, and this ruling is outrageous."
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization, represented by public interest law firm GreenLaw, along with environmental law firm Stack & Associates, filed a legal challenge last year to the state environmental agency’s handling of the fish kill.
Oakley rejected the case because the ORK could not prove citizens injured or affected by the fish kill had been harmed due to the state’s actions, she said.
Dead fish began floating to shore in late May, and investigations by Wedincamp, state environmentalists, DNR rangers and private citizens pointed to the origin of the fish kill as a few yards south of a King America Finishing discharge pipe.
The cause of the fish kill was ruled to be columnaris, a bacterial disease caused by environmental stress. Several tests of the Ogeechee River waters found contaminants including formaldehyde, ammonia and hydrogen peroxide in the water.
Professionals contacted by Wedincamp and citizens confirmed those high levels of contaminants likely caused the environmental stress.
Aside from the dead fish, many riverfront landowners complained about not being able to fish or swim.
Some citizens swam and fished in the river days after the fish kill started, but before state and local officials closed the river and posted warnings. Some of these people complained of illness including rashes and respiratory problems. Many joined class action lawsuits, and some joined the Ogeechee Riverkeeper in suing the state EPD as well as King Finishing, citing complaints that the EPD failed to handle the fish kill appropriately.
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper Organization also filed a challenge to an agreement between the EPD and King America, who agreed to a consent order allowing the plant to "continue discharging illegally and without a proper permit," Wedincamp said. "The consent order also imposed the requirement of an environmental project. Citizens, including Ogeechee Riverkeeper and its members, had no input into this process."
The ORK "brought numerous witnesses to testify about how they have been directly affected by the illegal discharge and how they fear it may happen again," she said. "A prominent biologist at Auburn University, Dr. Alan Wilson, testified that these fears are well founded and that the fish kill could happen again.
"Nevertheless, the judge ruled that the members of the public most affected by the fish kill and overall health of the river have no standing to challenge the state’s inadequate penalty."
Wedincamp said the organization will appeal Oakley’s ruling.
"We will appeal and fight it until the end," she said. "First, we had to endure a massive fish kill, then EPD shuts us out of the process, and then a judge says we have no right to complain. We have a right to protect our rivers."
Tommy Pope, who owns land along the Ogeechee in Bulloch County, said Wednesday he was stunned as well by Oakley’s decision.
"I don’t think it was a fair ruling," he said. "She (Oakley) seemed to be watching out more for the EPD. We don’t seem to be getting help from our government, and they seem to be letting industry take over our environment."
Wedincamp said Oakley "totally ignored testimony." The citizens do have a right to protest, she said.
"This is completely unacceptable," Wedincamp said. "We feel like she slammed the door in our faces and said ‘you have no voice.’"
Pope said he plans to ask the Bulloch County tax assessor’s office to lower his property taxes because his property value has plummeted due to the pollution of the river.
"We can’t swim, we can’t fish," he said.
There has not been any decision on when an appeal will be filed, except that there definitely will be an appeal, Wedincamp said.