One year after a massive fish kill that left about 38,000 fish rotting along the shores of the Ogeechee River, Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp said conditions have not improved.
Many lawsuits and appeals later, nothing has truly changed about the way King America Finishing discharges wastewater into the river, she said.
After a recent boating trip along the Bulloch County banks of the river, Wedincamp said she is seeing "the same ol’ same ol" when it comes to river pollution, the scarcity of fish, and sores on some of the few that are caught by fishermen.
"There was a really low flow, and we didn’t see any fish or activity," she said, adding that the only wildlife noted were a couple birds and some small minnows.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources restocked the river after the extensive fish kill. But it will take more than a year to replace the 38,000 bream, bass, and other fish that died after a suspected discharge released more chemicals, including formaldehyde and ammonia, into the shallow river waters that were not enough to dilute the poisons, Wedincamp said.
The first dead fish were reported May 20, 2011, a Friday, when citizens were alarmed to find about 20 bloated, sore-ridden fish floating near a private landing just downstream from the King America discharge pipe.
After the initial report, Environmental Protection Division officials left a voicemail message on the King America Finishing emergency contact number. There was no answer, even when EPD officials made several more calls that evening, according to reports from the EPD.
Tests showed there was sufficient oxygen in the river at the time, eliminating that as a cause for the fish kill.
On May 21, the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) monitored the river for dissolved oxygen, temperature, pH and conductivity. More attempts to contact the King America emergency contact were fruitless, but later, a KAF representative returned the call just before noon, reports stated.
The EPD then reported the fish kill to the Emergency Response Network and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. An EPA representative was sent to test the waters. EPD, EPA, DNR and Screven Emergency Management Association officials discussed the possibility for a fishing/swimming advisory, according to EPD reports.
King Finishing reported no problems with the plant’s operations and discharge procedures at that time.
More testing resumed May 22, and an advisory was issued at just before 5 p.m., almost 47 hours after the fish kill was reported, according to EPD documentation. Many people swam and fished in the river downstream from the plant that weekend and reported seeing dead fish appearing in the water, Wedincamp said.
On May 23, the EPD found "no evidence of catastrophic release of chemicals or untreated wastewater." Reports listed the "leading edge of the fish kill (was located) at (Highway) 204 crossing (and) dead mussels were observed upriver from (Highway) 301 crossing" on May 24.
The DNR Wildlife Resources Division continued monitoring, and alligator carcasses were sent for analysis. Columnaris, a bacterial infection caused by environmental stress, was identified as the cause of death. Wedincamp said she and others believe the environmental stress was due to the pollution in the river water.
The swimming ban was lifted May 27 after water and sediment samples were reviewed and indicated no evidence of threat to human health. About a week later, on June 3, fish tissue results were reviewed and the fish consumption advisory was lifted.
Ogeechee River land owner Ben Anderson said he is still disgusted by the river conditions. He and other land owners have reported lack of wildlife, chemical stains on water marks, and sores on fish. Anderson said he has fish in is freezer bearing red, open sores such the ones that appeared on the tens of thousands of fish that died after the May 20 fish kill. He doesn’t plan to eat them — they are evidence, he said.
"The river is still terrible," he said. "I have small bass with sores in the freezer. The water has cleared up but is still low."
Wedincamp, on the Ogeechee River Facebook page, stated the river is about three times lower today than it was this time last year.
Anderson said that in spite of obstacles and roadblocks, he and other citizens concerned about the river won’t stop pursuing the issue of repairing and ending the damage.
Many lawsuits have been filed, including an appeal that the Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization filed against the EPD’s issuance of a consent order requiring King America to spend $1 million on river improvements.
The order followed an EPD investigation that, months after the fish kill, determined King America had indeed violated discharge permits and other mandates governing discharge and operations. Wedincamp said the ORK organization echoes the sentiments of many citizens who voiced dissatisfaction with the EPD’s punitive move. The consent order was not adequate, she said.
"We’re not going to give up," Anderson said. "We’re going to keep fighting. The environment to me is one of the most important things. It’s been a disgusting year."
Wedincamp said the textiles plant is still discharging waste in violation of permits. A public hearing about the draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for King America Finishing is slated for 7 p.m. June 12 at Effingham County High School. Additional information may be found on the Ogeechee Riverkeeper Web site at http://www.ogeecheeriverkeeper.org.
Phone calls seeking comment from King America officials Friday were not immediately returned. Also, EPD officials were unable to be reached for comment Friday.