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Ogeechee River: An Anniversary Fish Kill

June 6, 2012

After the largest fish kill in state history on May 20, 2011, one might expect the situation in the Ogeechee River below King America Finishing’s wastewater discharge (outfall) pipe to have improved.  Unfortunately, fish started dying again almost exactly one year to the day and in the same downriver stretch.  Days before Memorial Day 2012, local officials advised people not to swim or eat fish from the Ogeechee River.

Why did the fish die in 2011?  The fish technically died from a bacterial infection.  The bacteria is naturally occurring in the water but a toxic pollution cocktail stressed healthy fish, making the fish susceptible to the bacteria.  When Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) investigated King America after the fish kill, EPD discovered a new and unpermitted production discharge line – which was illegal by the terms of the Clean Water Act – that had been in operation for at least five years.  King America’s discharges pumped ammonia, formaldehyde, and other chemicals into the water.  On top of this violation, the Ogeechee’s flow was at near historic lows which also contributed to higher water temperatures.  As a result 38,000 fish died below King America’s outfall pipe and people got sick and developed blisters.

So why are fish still dying in 2012?  First, the EPD and King America attorneys signed a consent order without public input that laid out terms acceptable to the state and the corporation.  Consent orders essentially allow violators to clean-up their act without a trial or paying fines; if violators do not live up to the terms of the order they could go to trial or face fines.  The consent order allows the illegal discharge to continue and requires King America to spend $1,000,000 on undetermined environmental projects (a controversial third-party monitoring program was added late in the game).  Without the consent order, King America could be subject to $98,000,000 in Clean Water Act fines.  Second: drought.  The Ogeechee River’s water levels continue to drop as drought digs deeper in the southeast.  As a result, fish continue to die only “below the discharge,” according to one EPD investigator.

What can you do?  If you live in the Ogeechee River’s watershed there are at least three things you can do:

First, provide public comment.  You can attend the 7:00 PM June 12, 2012 Public Hearing at the Effingham County High School regarding King America’s draft pollution discharge permit.  You can find the permit, other documents, facts useful to the public comment process, and other ways to submit your comments at Ogeechee Riverkeeper.  Surf here to watch a recent WASV.com video and sign a petition organized by GreenLaw.

Second, ask hard questions of your Board of Natural Resources representatives – who are appointed by the Governor: Mabel C. Jenkins and Mark V. Smith represent the Ogeechee area.  What are they doing to make sure Georgia’s voters and taxpayers have access to clean water?

Third, hold elected officials accountable.  During the 2012 legislative session, State House and Senate representatives from the region leaned hard on EPD, and requested independent monitoring, results posted to a public website, and a wild and scenic river designation.  But they were unable to secure any lasting or permanent changes.  As the election looms, voters might ask incumbents and candidates who have qualified for the 2012 election (Maps: House District and Senate District) exactly how they will make sure the fish stop dying, people can swim Georgia’s rivers without fear, and polluters in Georgia will be held accountable to the full letter of the law as state and local governments are holding BP and its partners in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon’s Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

Folks from the Ogeechee River – and the state’s other river communities – who demand clean water are not radical environmentalists.  They probably don’t want to shut King America or other facilities down.  They do want environmental justice.  And, they are more than likely your neighbors, customers, employees, and constituents who want a place to swim, paddle a boat, or a chance to catch fish for the table on lazy days.

-Chris Manganiello

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