One by one, speakers told state Environmental Protection Division representatives that the agency wasn’t doing its job and the pollution of the Ogeechee River had to stop.
The EPD held a public hearing Tuesday night at Effingham County High School on a proposed consent order for King America Finishing, and those in attendance blasted both the company and the state agency.
“Your job is to protect the environment,” said Connie Hayes. “Yet you have repeatedly allowed a corporation from another state with no allegiance to Georgia or its people to come into the area and recklessly or criminally destroy a once-pristine body of water. A silly little fine of $1 million is laughable at best.”
Speakers from the crowd of more than 100 lambasted the proposed consent order, saying it doesn’t do anything to alleviate or redress what has happened to the Ogeechee River.
They also reiterated their opposition to any discharge from King America Finishing into the river.
“We want the pipe out of the river,” said Al Driggers. “We don’t want no more poison dumped in.”
Said Connie Shreve: “We don’t want King America Finishing to dump into our river anymore. This is a sacred space we’re talking about. We do not want them to have a permit.”
“We do not need any more discharge into the river,” said former Effingham County commissioner Hubert Sapp.
More than 38,000 fish died in an unprecedented May 2011 fish kill. Dead fish were found downstream of King America’s discharge pipe into the river. No dead fish were found upstream of the pipe. A bacteria, columnaris, was cited as the reason for the fish kill, and columnaris can be caused by environmental stress.
Residents and property owners along the Ogeechee have held the Screven County-based textiles plant responsible for the fish kill and said its effects have continued nearly two years later. EPD assistant director Jim Ussery and Bruce Foisy, acting district manager of the EPD’s Coastal District office in Brunswick, also faced stern criticism from the speakers.
“If this happened in your backyard,” Albert Strickland said to EPD officials, “you’d be sitting out here.”
Said Annette Wilson: “If you had property on this river, what would you do?”
The EPD discovered that the plant had established a production line that had not been permitted, and the plant’s discharge permit had lapsed. Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Judge John R. Turner overturned last August a ruling by a state administrative law judge that stated the Ogeechee Riverkeeper did not have standing to sue the EPD.
“KAF has knowingly had unpermitted production lines illegally discharging wastewater into the Ogeechee River for nearly seven years,” said Ogeechee Riverkeeper executive director Emily Markesteyn. “Once EPD was made aware of this illegal discharge, they should have stopped it. Unfortunately, EPD has conceded to KAF. EPD is allowing KAF to continue discharging without a permit. KAF’s actions are an egregious assault upon our natural resources.”
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper has said that, under violations of the Clean Water Act, the company could have faced up to $91 million in fines. The EPD has assessed a $1 million penalty to be directed toward supplemental environmental projects, or SEPs.
“The fine should fit the crime,” said Joe Watson. “These people are criminals, and the leadership of this company should be brought up on charges.”
Watson also said the federal Environmental Protection Agency should investigate the state EPD.
“The complete inaction of this organization is either corruption or complete incompetence,” he said.
Said Tommy Pope: “We do not trust King America, nor do we trust the EPD. I have lived on the Ogeechee River for 29 years and I’ve watched it go from the cleanest river in Georgia to the dirtiest river in Georgia because of this discharge.”
Several speakers also said the Environmental Protection Division isn’t living up to its name.
“The EPD does protect — it protects culprits, not the environment,” said Rita Elliott. “Please make a liar out of me. Make the EPD a champion for the environment for a change.”
The EPD also said, in its previous consent order, that the company does not admit to any factual allegations by agreeing to the order.
“How can you let them off the hook like that?” James Hayes asked of the EPD. “You work for me, right? Well, the way I see this going, you’re fired. I’m just fed up.”
Asked Wayne Carney: “What does it take to stop this madness?”
Criticism of SEPs
Hayes said the $1 million for the SEPs instead should go to making sure the plant’s effluent isn’t dangerous.
The EPD has outlined three SEPs worth $1 million in the consent order — third-party monitoring of the facility’s discharge for 18 months at a cost of $75,000; upgrades to Millen’s wastewater treatment plant at $158,609; and 36-month research project by Georgia Southern University at more than $766,000.
“They’re always doing research projects,” said Connie Hayes. “But I don’t know that’s going to clean up the river.”
Watson said the third-party testing should come out of the company’s operating expenses and needs to be done “ as they have a pipe in the river.”
The GSU research proposal is expected to produce a better understanding of stressors on the river. It will produce an analysis of the Ogeechee River system, Foisy said.
But speakers said the SEPs either had little or nothing to do with the river’s problems, such as the improvement of Millen’s sewage treatment plant, or were poorly-defined.
“This draft consent order does not provide for any penalties,” Markesteyn said. “Where is the justice in that? This draft consent order needs to be withdrawn and a new consent order be negotiated that reflects the egregiousness of KAF’s conduct and degree of environmental harm and also includes provision that directly mitigate the harm.”
Said Rita Elliott: “The consent order has no penalty for the egregious and willful act of poisoning our water.”
Under the consent order, third-party sampling will be done monthly for six months and then be conducted quarterly for the next 12 months. King America would select the independent testing firm, which must be approved by the EPD.
That stipulation also met with derision from the crowd.
“The consent order is absolutely worthless,” said Roy Lynch. “The EPD is the poster child for a government agency serving private interest instead of ours. Punishment deserves to be meted out. We need to shut down immediately the illegal line. You haven’t done that, so you haven’t done your job.”
Ben Anderson said the company has settled out of court with more than 60 landowners, and those settlements are a tacit acknowledgement of guilt. Shreve also implored others to file suit against the company.
“We have to hit them in the pocket,” Shreve said. “Every single person here has to sue King America.”
The effects from the fish kill have endured, several speakers said, from the lack of fish and wildlife to the change in the hue of the river and its sediment.
“There are no deer,” Anderson said. “There are no water snakes anymore. There are no alligators anymore. The fish are gone. There is no wildlife on the river.”
Sapp said the river’s sandbars used to be white. “Now they’re all kinds of colors.”
Tom Bridges, member of a hunting club that has land along the river, called the river “an ecological disaster.”
“Due to the massive dumping from one of King America Finishing’s holding ponds two years ago, the river is practically dead,” he said. “All this is made worse by EPD not doing its job enforcing and investigating companies that discharge into the Ogeechee River. Now after two years of stonewalling, what has been done to ensure the quality of the discharge into the river? Absolutely nothing. King America continues to operate its discharge into the river without a permit.”
Don Stack, whose law firm is involved in lawsuits over the fish kill and the unpermitted discharge, was in favor of third-party testing. But he balked at King America Finishing being able to select the testing agency. He said the company should hire a full-time inspector who is not a King America Finishing or EPD employee.
Bridges said the EPD’s slow response to the May 2011 fish kill and King America’s reaction did not help matters.
EPD comes under fire
There also was frustration over the EPD’s process and several expressed frustration over having to say the same thing again and again to the EPD without any results. New interpretations of the acronym EPD ranged from Environmental Destruction Division to Environmental Damage Department to Screven County Employment Protection Division, since King America Finishing is one of the county’s largest employers.
“We do the same thing every damn time,” said Donald Blair. “We were in the same building and had the same questions.”
“The public is frustrated with a lack of answers we’re getting from EPD,” said Steve Mason, an Effingham County commissioner. “Personally, I’m disappointed in EPD.”
Mason said commissioners met with EPD Director Jud Turner in January, and EPD officials promised a list of things they would do to get information to the commissioners. Commissioners, in turn, offered their own suggestions to the EPD, including the agency issuing a white paper on the river.
“We haven’t seen that,” Mason said.
Mason also questioned the need to spend money to upgrade Millen’s wastewater treatment plant, which is 12 miles north of where the fish kill began.
“Any money that is spent needs to be spent in the affected area, and it needs to be something tangible,” he said.
Bryan County commissioner and Georgia Hunting and Fishing Federation vice president Jimmy Henderson also vented his exasperation.
“Since we’ve been coming here, nothing has happened. Not one thing has changed,” he said. “They’re still dumping filth into the river. Send somebody who can answer my questions.”
Henderson said his family has lived near the Ogeechee River since the 1700s “and for the first time, I can’t eat a fish out of the river.”
Carney also urged participants to take political action and pointed toward Gov. Nathan Deal as a target for voters.
“The blame is not only on King America but on the EPD and on Gov. Deal as well,” Pope said.
The EPD will take written comments until March 15 and Jeff Larson, assistant chief of the Watershed Protection Branch for the Savannah and Ogeechee river basins, said the review period and any possible revisions could be expedited.
“We’ve heard a lot of their passion, and we’ve heard it at several occasions,” he said. “We understand their concerns. We’re hoping that what we have in the existing consent order and ultimately in the permit that’s issued will address those concerns. We feel a lot of it’s there. There was a lot of comment on additional SEPs. There’s a lot to look at.”
Larson also said the plant has done a lot of work to modify its facility and its testing for toxic materials.
“Several hundred tests have been done on the effluent,” he said. “There’s no comparison to what they were doing before and what they’re doing now. We’re very confident the Ogeechee River is protected from the discharge. There is a host of new monitoring requirements placed on King.”
The company has as many as 400 employees at its Dover plant. Speakers were split on any potential loss of jobs. But nearly all wanted something done to make the river cleaner.
“I don’t want anybody to lose their job,” Anderson said. “But I want my river back.”