Lawmakers and citizens alike sounded a recurring theme on a sweltering Sunday afternoon: They want answers on why thousands of fish in a stretch of the Ogeechee River died two weeks ago.
Several hundred people turned out to Dasher’s Landing in Bryan County, just across the Effingham County line, with many voicing their displeasure with what caused the massive fish kill, along with their frustration and their displeasure.
State Environmental Protection Division officials have said what caused the fish kill is columnaris, a bacteria not known to be harmful to humans. They declared Friday that the Ogeechee River as safe for swimming and fish taken from the river were safe for eating.
EPD says safe, citizens remain wary
But many in attendance Sunday afternoon remained skeptical.
“We’re not getting in the river right now because we don’t know if it’s safe,” said Liz Moore.
Moore said they started finding dead fish along the stretch of the Ogeechee where she lives on Wednesday, days before the EPD issued its alert to refrain from swimming in the river and eating fish taken from there. She and her son went down to the river a few days ago and said their feet were stinging.
Dianna Wedincamp, executive director of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, also balked at the declaration the river was safe for swimming.
“We’re not telling anyone that it’s safe to swim in the river or eat the fish,” she said. “We’re working hard to get this straight and make something happen. We’ve been working on this for six years. This is a time for everybody to join together.
“The Ogeechee River is suffering really bad,” Wedincamp said.
No representative from the EPD was present at the meeting Sunday, and the EPD will hold a meeting tonight at Effingham County Middle School at 7 p.m. Wedincamp took the EPD to task for not issuing a warning about the river earlier after reports of scores of dead fish were discovered.
“That’s a backwards way of doing things,” she said.
Plant put in spotlight
Wedincamp said the EPD told her it had received only three complaints over the 10 years about the King America Finishing plant in Screven County.
“We’ve made more than three,” she said of the Riverkeepers.
She also said that plant’s permit has been extended administratively the last six years, and there could be new processes and chemicals at the plant not covered by the existing permit.
“The permitting process of the EPD fall short of protecting the public,” Wedincamp said.
Several others cast suspicion upon King America Finishing, which has a permit to discharge into the river.
“I haven’t pointed any fingers,” said David Gay, a Screven County businessman who owns land along the river and got reports early on from his workers swimming in the river about the dead fish. “But 20 yards above the pipe, you catch all kinds of fish. Time heals all wounds, but time hasn’t healed anything yet.”
Wedincamp also urged those in attendance to e-mail a complaint to the EPD about the Ogeechee River, in order to have a paper trail, rather than call. She said a complaint from citizens would have more impact than a complaint from the Riverkeeper, though all the other Riverkeeper groups were behind their efforts.
She had received reports of dead fish downstream from Screven County to Highway 204. Her test results showed sulfates and sulfides at 550 parts per million near the King American Finishing discharge pipe but only at 2.7 parts per million upstream from that point.
King American Finishing plant president Mike Beasley told the Statesboro Herald in the days just after the state closed the river that he too wanted to find out what happened.
“We’re mystified. If we’re causing it I want to know it,” he said, adding his company was cooperating with state and federal officials.
Holman and Wingate, an Atlanta law firm, has been contacted by several people for a potential class action lawsuit, and the firm has sent investigators to the Ogeechee, Wedincamp said.
“We’ll get to the bottom of this,” she said. “We don’t know what was spilled, and we don’t know if it’s gone. We don’t know that it’s safe to go into the water.
“Hopefully, we’ll make national attention,” she said.
Legal action under consideration
Wayne Carney, who organized the meeting, and Joe Hunter, also called for the crowd to take action.
“We’re in a war, and the war is against us,” Carney said. “The first shot was fired by someone who doesn’t have the courage to stand up and take responsibility.
“There is no more time to waste,” Carney added. “This river is on the verge of death. We need change now, not six months from now, not five months from now.”
He also called for a freeze on discharge permits into the river and for making the Ogeechee a recreational stream, which added protective restrictions.
Hunter, who is 85, said the problems in the river didn’t start a few weeks ago but back in 1965 when Sparta Mills bought 118 acres adjacent to the river.
“The first time they dumped into the river, it killed all the fish,” he said.
In 1987, Hunter discovered fish with deteriorated fins and sores and brought his concerns to then U.S. Rep. Lindsay Thomas. Hunter said he and others decided to get together “and put a stop to it.”
They shot video of a swamp with acres and acres of dead swamp, he said.
“When King Finishing closed down, the river cleared up,” he said. Hunter added it the river remained clear until King American Finishing began operation. He too called upon those who live on or use the river for recreation to take action, even legal action.
“It is time to quit being nice,” he said. “It is time for people on the river to stand up and be counted, and that time is now.”
Lawmakers seek answers, too
The Riverkeeper also has received an anonymous donation of $5,000 as a reward for anyone whoever has direct evidence of what caused the fish kill. Local legislators also vowed to get answers on what led to the fish kill.
“We’re not going to stop until we find out what happened, and we’re not going to stop until we can ensure it doesn’t happen again,” said state Sen. Jack Hill.
Hill said the state will be committed to restocking the fish in the Ogeechee.
What led to the stress that caused the bacteria outbreak, however, remains to be discovered.
“I can’t tell you that I have the answers because I do not,” said state Rep. Ann Purcell (R-Rincon). “But I wish I did. I hope we can make a difference.”
State Rep. Jan Tankersley also said she was eager to get answers on what led to the fish kill and the advisories issued in the wake of the fish kill.
“The river is one of our most pristine natural resources, and we don’t need to see the river suffer like this,” she said. “I have fished in it, tubed in it and swam in it and I want answers to these questions, too. We are dedicated to resolving this.”
State Sen. Buddy Carter said that if a culprit is found, they will be fined and the fines will go toward cleaning up the river and restocking its fish.
“I ain’t going to swim in it, and I ain’t going to eat the fish,” he said. “But I have confidence in the EPD and in (executive director) Allen Barnes.”