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Signs point to bacteria for Ogeechee River fish kill
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The Georgia Environmental Protection Division announced late Thursday that the fish kill in the Ogeechee River was caused by columnaris, a bacterial disease induced by environmental stress. Humans are not known to be affected by this disease.

The cause of the environmental stress is still unknown; and the EPD is continuing to advise citizens in Bryan, Bulloch, Chatham, Effingham and Screven counties not to swim in or consume fish from the Ogeechee River until further notice.

The EPD, DNR Wildlife Division, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, local emergency management agencies and other organizations continue to investigate the recent fish kill and water quality issues in the Ogeechee River. A comprehensive sampling investigation initially began Sunday morning by state and federal agencies.

“Georgia EPD and the agencies involved in this investigation have Georgia residents’ health as our greatest concern and priority,” said Jim Ussery, assistant director of the Georgia EPD. “We will continue this investigation and release more test results as they become available.”

Local citizens conducting tests on their own found “high levels of sodium hydroxide” in water samples, said Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp.

Also known as lye, sodium hydroxide is used in several industries, including the processing of cotton and production of rayon.
Wednesday, dead fish were found as far south in the Ogeechee River as Morgan’s Bridge on Highway 204. Thousands of fish of all kinds were reported along the Ogeechee earlier this week, and Wedincamp said she traced the fish kill Sunday to a discharge pipe at King America Finishing, a textiles plant on the Ogeechee six miles north of the Highway 301 landing on the Bulloch/Screven County line.

An investigation Monday by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found no immediate violations at King Finishing.

King Finishing president Mike Beasley said Wednesday his company is unaware of any spill or leak and that the company cooperated fully with EPD and EPA officials during the investigation. He said he is as concerned as anyone about the kill.

“We’re mystified,” he said. “If we’re causing it I want to know it.”

While he said he is unaware of any reason the plant could be the cause of the fish kill, Beasley said he has been working on closing a landfill on KAF property, an operation that has been fully permitted and observed by the EPD. He said the landfill and sludge pond was used by former plant owners to dump ash from a coal-fired boiler into a sludge pond. “We inherited that mess.”

The landfill site is not on the river, but about a half mile away, he said.

Both Wedincamp and Kevin Chambers, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division, said test results from Georgia Southern University, the University of Georgia and other labs are expected to be returned soon.

DNR spokesperson Michelle Cortes said fish samples were collected and sent to Auburn University’s Fish Disease Center for disease analysis. She said no other wildlife had been affected, but some have reported dead alligators, Wedincamp said.

An Effingham County man reported an alligator he had been watching and feeding for years turned up dead Tuesday, and a couple of other citizens have reported seeing dead gators, she said.

Cortes said tests on water and sediment from the Ogeechee were conducted at a Savannah lab under contract with the Environmental Protection Agency, and tests on fish tissue was done at the EPA lab.

Wedincamp said she is unfamiliar with sodium hydroxide and its effects, adding that she is hesitant to say that is the cause of the fish kill. “We want to wait for other test results” to see what else is found, she said.

Wedincamp said in her observations on the river this week, she saw thousands of dead fish that were being feasted upon by birds. An owl remained unmoving as she approached close enough to touch it, and that behavior concerned her, she said.

“We are concerned and will be watching the wildlife,” she said. The kill had to be caused by some kind of chemical spill, because “there is no other way it would have massive quantities of fish die” like they did, she said. “It had to be a massive spill for it to kill fish that far down.”