At least this time, officials with the state Environmental Protection Division listened. By design, they weren’t going to offer any answers or any clues as to how they might act upon King America Finishing’s application for a new permit to discharge treated wastewater into the Ogeechee River.
But at least they didn’t further enflame the situation with mean-spirited and degrading comments this time around.
“I think they learned a lot from that first meeting,” said Diana Wedincamp of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper. “The citizens aren’t going away. The degrading comments aren’t going to work.”
The question remains, though — will what nearly four dozen people had to say Thursday night and already several hundred comments submitted online or in writing in opposition to the permit have any effect on the EPD?
“We hope the citizens’ comments are taken into account,” Wedicamp said. “We hope all the concerns the citizens have raised are documented properly, so the citizens can access the comments online.”
The opinions voiced last Tuesday night at Effingham County High School were unanimous — there is no faith among the Ogeechee River residents and users in the EPD and King America Finishing. And there is explicitly no confidence in the textiles plant to self-monitor its discharge to ensure that nothing that can further damage the river is going into its stream.
“They are not a good corporate citizen,” said one of the speakers at the meeting. “They’re a corporate criminal.”
Before applying for this permit, King America Finishing discharged into the river for five years — on a lapsed permit.
The EPD has never directly accused the plant of the fish kill that wiped out more than 38,000 fish in the river last May. Officials put the river off-limits for several days.
There were no dead fish found in the river upstream of King America Finishing’s discharge pipe. Downstream, there were 38,000 dead fish and a river that was teetering on the brink of death.
Despite this evidence, the EPD did not directly hold King America Finishing culpable for the monumental fish kill. It’s proof you can lead a state agency to water, but you can’t make them blame anyone for polluting it.
Likewise, there’s been no mea culpa from King America Finishing. Under a consent order last year, which, again, did not hold the company responsible for the fish kill, King America Finishing had to pay $1 million for unspecified supplemental environmental projects. A million bucks seems like a small price to pay for the damage to the river, and those who live, work and play in and on the river found the amount risible, though it’s no laughing matter.
“King America Finishing has never owned up to what has happened,” said attorney Jim Carter. “It has placed responsibility everywhere but on its own doorstep.”
The consent order’s findings and the payment — it’s difficult to classify it as a fine when there’s no finding of guilt — only served to further erode any faith people who enjoy and use the Ogeechee have in the EPD, the state and King America Finishing.
The plant employs nearly 400 people, and Screven County’s unemployment rate stands at 11.4 percent, per April’s figures. Shutting the plant down would balloon the jobless rate to 17.2 percent (if all of the plant’s workers live in Screven).
But the longer this situation goes on and the more it appears the EPD will grant some sort of discharge permit to the plant, the less the citizens along the Ogeechee care about added joblessness in Screven County.
Given the track record of King America Finishing, and the history of problems along the river from pollution, the EPD should listen to the chorus of hundreds calling for no new permit. A land application system to get rid of the treated wastewater would be expensive, and perhaps prohibitively so.
“It would have been nice to see them say what they think in this permit is good,” Wedincamp added, “and if it’s good for a blackwater river to have a discharge of formaldehyde.”
Yet if the company is fully committed to being a good citizen of the Ogeechee River, it should exhaustively investigate its feasibility.
But there is no timetable for the permit to be granted or denied, and some citizens issued concerns about Senate Bill 427, which now law will expedite review and issue of discharge permits.
And if the state is really vested in listening to its citizens, it should at the very least require the company to pay for independent testing of its treated wastewater discharge to ensure no formaldehyde or any other pollutants or toxins are entering the river.
“If you’re not outraged,” said William B. Hunter at last week’s meeting, “you haven’t been paying attention.”
It’s time for the state to start paying attention to its citizens, in order to prevent another such outrage as last May’s colossal fish kill.