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Time to take steps to preserve the river
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It’s been three weeks since the fish kill in the Ogeechee River began, and yet there are as many questions as there are answers.

What triggered the bacteria that ultimately killed approximately 30,000 fish? Why did it take so long for the Department of Natural Resources to issue warnings about the river after the first reports of the fish kill?

And most importantly, who is responsible and what can be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

The state Environmental Protection Division and its parent organization, the Department of Natural Resources, were too slow to react once reports of widespread fish kills were reported. The river should have been shut down much sooner until scientists discovered what led to more than 30,000 fish dying in the waterway.

The culprit, columnaris, is not harmful to humans. But watching scores of dead fish turn up in the river should have prompted officials to prohibit people from getting into the Ogeechee and eating fish taken from there until the nature of the fish kill was uncovered.

And that too remains much of a mystery. The DNR says a stressor caused the columnaris to develop and infect the fish. But what was that stressor? Low amounts of water in the river? Unseasonably warm temperatures? Recorded highs for the area didn’t start approaching the upper 90s until May 21 — after the first fish kills were spotted.

The EPD’s findings showed the fish kill occurring just downstream of an outfall pipe from Screven County textile plant King America Finishing. There was no such massive fish kill upstream from the pipe.

Yet EPD officials won’t categorically attribute the fish kill to King America Finishing, though hundreds of people who live on the river, rely on it for their livelihood or just enjoy its tranquil, cool waters stated forcefully in two public meetings that they hold the plant culpable.

A class action suit is in the works in Fulton County. If King America is determined to be responsible for whatever led to the columnaris outbreak, what’s the proper punishment? A stiff fine certainly is in order. Is a cease and desist order in the offing?

Whatever can be done may lie in the hands of state lawmakers. Several showed up to hear and take the heat at the citizens-called meeting at Dashers Landing on the Bryan-Effingham line and they were in attendance at last Tuesday’s meeting at Effingham County Middle School.

Among their list of items to address is having EPD react much more swiftly in getting cautions and warnings posted once such widespread fish kills are discovered. They can’t make the laboratories work faster, and there are occasions when tests won’t reveal something, if you don’t know to look for it — such as the existence of traces of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is also a natural occurring, albeit harmful, substance.

There is a push to seek classifying the Ogeechee River as a recreational stream. If enacted, this will give the river a level of protection against further spills or releases that could endanger the vitality of the river. It’s a fragile stream, nearly 300 miles long, running from the piedmont to the ocean.

What happened three weeks ago — and the anxiety and apprehension it caused then and has not faded away since — shouldn’t happen again.