Slap on the wrist, slap in the face
The settlement the Georgia Environmental Protection Division reached with King America Finishing was nothing more than a slap on the wrist for what is arguably one the worst environmental failures in the state history. And that translates into a slap in the face for the people who live in the Ogeechee River watershed.
King America was found guilty of egregious pollution of the Ogeechee River over a 5 year period which culminated in May with the largest fish kill in state history that started right below King America’s outfall pipe. In April of 2006, King America installed new production lines that put flame retardant on fabric, but they never got permission from EPD to add more pollution like formaldehyde, ammonia, sodium, and sulfide to their existing discharges into the river. What’s even more shocking, EPD inspected the plant several times since 2006 and never noticed that these new production lines were adding pollution to the river until fish started dying in May – 5 years after the fact. Local folks, including the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, who spend lots of time on the river have known something was up for years, and have been complaining. But only a massive fish kill finally got EPD’s attention.
EPD could have fined the company up to $91 million dollars, and potentially even filed criminal charges. Instead they filed no charges, levied no fines, and ordered the company to pay for $1 million in environmental projects over the next couple of years. For perspective, the city of Atlanta, in its consent decree for pollution from its outdated sewers, had to pay a fine of $2.5 million and had to pay for two environmental projects that totaled $30 million, in addition to having to pay to fix their sewers. “Environmental projects” could be any number of things, and the deal that King got from EPD wasn’t very specific, so it will likely take a lot of work from the Ogeechee Riverkeeper and locals to watchdog
the process and make sure that $1 million is actually spent and that it’s for projects that really do benefit the river.
EPD’s Director, Allen Barnes, brokered the deal. Barnes is a lawyer who was a partner in the environmental section at the King & Spalding law firm in Atlanta. He brokered the deal with King America’s attorney, Lee DeHihns, who does environmental legal work for another big Atlanta firm – Alston & Bird.
Barnes went to the DNR Board last week to get an after-the-fact blessing, presumably for cover, because he didn’t need their approval. The questions and statements DNR board members made were troubling. Board member Mabel Jenkins, who represents the Ogeechee on the board, surprisingly thanked Barnes for a balanced approach to the environment and commerce and said “I appreciate that they have their jobs. They can all get back to work.” Board Member Ray Lambert said “I don’t think it could have been handled any better.”
Those statements are surprising given that the agency they oversee missed a blatant violation of the laws they are charged with enforcing, resulting in the largest fish kill in state history. Many would have expected the board to come down hard on their top employee and ask questions about how EPD could be left unaware for 5 years that this was happening. Also, the assumption that somehow a tougher punishment for King America would somehow impact King’s ability to keep their employees working needs more back up. More questions might have been asked before professing “I don’t think it could have been handled any better” like: How much money did King America save all those years by not
installing proper waste treatment? And, what were the profits of the plant from 2006 until now?
Fortunately, other people are asking those questions – it’s the Riverkeepers and the folks of the Ogeechee. These folks know that you can protect rivers and have jobs, and that healthy rivers, corporate responsibility, and strong environmental protections are what makes a strong economy.