BLITCHTON—Citizens who live along or near the Ogeechee River were urged not to give up the fight and continue to take their plight through legal channels and elected officials.
More than 100 people gathered again at Dasher’s Landing on Sunday to discuss what has happened since 38,000 fish died in a May fish kill. The culprit, many believe, is Screven County textile plant King America Finishing. Dead fish were found 50 yards downstream of a plant discharge’s pipe, but no fish with columnaris, the bacteria that led to the fish kill, were found upstream of the pipe.
“It’ll be the death of that river if something doesn’t change soon,” said Wayne Carney.
A class action suit has been filed in Fulton County, seeking damages for property owners along the river. The Ogeechee Riverkeeper also has filed a 60-day notice, which ends Oct. 4, that it will seek legal action against King America Finishing for violating the Clean Water Act.
King America Finishing signed a consent order from the state Environmental Protection Division, agreeing to a $1 million fine and the submission of supplemental environmental plans over the next 18 months. But many in attendance see the $1 million as a light penalty, and that the EPD’s consent order undercuts the Ogeechee Riverkeeper’s action.
“They trump our case,” said Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp. “What we can do is appeal the consent order. This consent order doesn’t resolve it. All it does is tell us how bad the situation is and how bad it has been for such a long time.”
She also said the Riverkeeper can make sure that the $1 million goes to river cleanup and not to a beautification project or to build a boat landing. She also said the $1 million will do little to bring the river back to life.
“It’s not enough; it’s not enough to undo the damage they’ve done,” she said. “Absolutely not.”
John Mullino called the $1 million fine “a joke.”
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “We had this problem 25 years ago. It never dawned on me that it would rear its ugly head again and be even worse.”
Wedincamp said the Riverkeeper’s attorneys, who have taken the case on a pro bono basis, are exploring what the group’s best options are.
“We will do whatever we can do to help all of you,” she said. “We’re working to make sure the health of the Ogeechee River comes back.”
Wedincamp said she led a group down the river Sunday morning and they saw few fish and very little wildlife.
“We saw nothing, absolutely nothing. It’s really heartbreaking to see our natural resource destroyed like this,” she said. “I guarantee you that we will not back down. We will make sure that this is right.”
An injunction could be sought to stop the plant’s production and order it to cease using its discharge pipe. However, a judge would be less inclined to grant that injunction in light of the EPD’s consent order, according to Don Stack, an attorney representing the Ogeechee Riverkeeper’s Clean Water Act claim.
“It’s clearly why the EPD did that, to derail the process,” he said. “There’s no admission of liability, and it can’t be used in another proceeding. How about a damn finding? There should be a criminal enforcement.
“It’s obvious they don’t have it under control because if they did have it under control, we wouldn’t be standing here today,” Stack continued. “The irony is they are standing in our way of cleaning up the river. We’ve got to say enough of this crap, enough of the discharge and enough of EPD putting up with violations. This is a knowing criminal violation of the law. That’s what the state should be addressing. That’s what the EPD should be addressing.”
In the consent order, EPD said the discharge pipe had been active for six years and that the EPD had not taken notice of it. Wedincamp also said the $1 million wasn’t enough of a penalty.
“Our EPD did not do their job, period,” she said. “They have not done their job since the opening of the facility and they’re still not doing their job. (EPD Director) Allen Barnes should not have agreed to such a settlement. I think they thought people would think that million dollars was going to surprise a lot of people and make everybody think that was great. The million dollars is not enough to bring the Ogeechee River back to good health.”
Several people questioned the safety of the water taken from their wells near the river. Testing that water could run $400-$700 for each well. It’s a cost King America Finishing should be willing to bear, Mullino said.
“Under the circumstances, I think that’s a legitimate request,” he said.
Those in attendance also were urged to continue the fight on several fronts, including politically, judicially and through publicity.
“I’m here today to find out how many of you would like to join me in a suit against King America and any other entities that happen to be involved, and that includes EPA and EPD,” said William Joseph Hunter. “I’m here to get a group of people together and file suit and stop it. The only way you’re going to stop them is to get into their pocketbook.”
Said Stack: “You have to file as many lawsuits as possible. You’ve got to continue to put the heat on. You’ve got to continue to put the pressure on. They cannot think that a million dollars is enough to make you go away.”
Former state senator Eric Johnson also urged letting state lawmakers know how Ogeechee River residents and enthusiasts feel.
“Your legislators are good people,” Johnson said. “Talk to them. They do want to hear from you. Call them, email them, twitter them, Facebook friend them.”
Johnson, a self-professed conservative Republican, said he too is a member of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, having property along the river in Bulloch County.
“You don’t want to King America Finishing to open again until the owners are willing to drink the water that comes out of that pipe,” Johnson said, eliciting an ovation from the crowd.
He also urged those in attendance to make contact with officials.
“Numbers matter,” Johnson said. “We don’t have to wait on attorneys and judicial proceedings. We can start this fight and start it with your elected officials.”
Two Georgia Southern University nursing students also dispensed a survey to determine if there have been any health problems resulting from the river.
King America Finishing, the world’s largest supplier of flame retardant fabrics for protective work clothing, employs 450 people at its facility just outside of Dover. Mullino doesn’t want to see the plant shut down and have 450 people thrown out of work at a time when the economy is faltering. He said he wants to see the company rectify what has happened to the Ogeechee.
“If they can clean things up, I have no problem with it,” he said. “But when I say clean it up, I mean clean it up — don’t pull water out of the river and quit polluting it, make them correct the problems. I think it’s going to happen.
“What I want to see is the water to get cleaned up and see the fish again.”