Ogeechee River Fish Kill

In May 2011, the largest fish kill in Georgia history took place on the Ogeechee River.  The culprit?  The King America Finishing textile plant in Dover.  More than 38,000 fish, along with alligators, turtles and birds, were found dead along a 70-mile stretch of river downstream from the King America discharge pipe.

Water samples that were analyzed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that the river contained elevated levels of formaldehyde, ammonia and hydrogen peroxide.

King America had been illegally discharging pollutants into the Ogeechee for five years. When the company expanded its facility and production in 2006, it failed to get the required permits that would allow it to discharge additional wastewater into the river, so the amount of the wastewater discharged over that time period and the chemicals it contained are unknown.

The river basin provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands of Georgians, supports a diversity of wildlife and offers many opportunities for recreation.

The fine provided by Georgia law for this offense, which violates the Clean Water Act, can be up to $50,000 a day for each day King America illegally discharged into the river. Under a consent order signed between the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) and King America, however, this egregious polluter will merely have to complete approximately $1 million in environmental projects on the Ogeechee River, with no fines to be paid.

Last year, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of the King America consent order. Their claim made two arguments: first, it stated that a public hearing should have been held regarding that consent order. Second, it claimed that the consent order did not go far enough to protect the river. An administrative law judge originally heard that complaint and denied the Riverkeeper its right to sue, stating they were not an affected party, known as “standing.” The Ogeechee Riverkeeper and its lawyers, GreenLaw and Stack & Associates, appealed the ruling to the Superior Court in Bulloch County, claiming that they did have proper standing.

On July 23, 2012, the Superior Court ruled in favor of the Riverkeeper and their argument. The ruling by Superior Court Judge John Turner states that the Ogeechee Riverkeeper does have standing to bring a lawsuit against EPD, and also agreed with the Riverkeeper that the consent order is invalid due to lack of public hearing. The case has been remanded back to the administrative law judge with instructions to hear the Riverkeeper’s objections to the consent order.

“I respect Judge Turner’s ruling,” says State House District 160 Representative Jan Tankersley.  “He is fair and just in following the rule of law. Though this action will result in more time in court, the process should move everyone involved towards a sustainable solution, one that must restore the Ogeechee to the fishing and recreational designation we have enjoyed in the past.”

Additionally, on July 23 the Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit in federal court against King America for violations of the Clean Water Act. Less than one month later, EPD issued King America a new pollution permit for the entire plant, including the new production lines, that does very little to protect the Ogeechee River.

“Despite the opposition of thousands of Georgians, the Georgia [EPD] issued a pollution permit allowing King America to continue discharging excessive levels of ammonia, formaldehyde and other chemicals,” says GreenLaw and Stack & Associates.

U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), following an investigation of the issue by his staff, may ask for the federal government to intercede and block the permit.

“My preference is that King America be allowed to put wastewater back into the Ogeechee River when the owners are willing to drink it,” says Eric Johnson, former Georgia State Senate President Pro Tem. “If that won’t happen, then third party monitoring is a reasonable request based upon their past performance.”

King America’s poor record in regards to water pollution is not the only concern that the Ogeechee Riverkeeper has.  The EPD recently issued the company a new permit that will allow for the continued discharge of pollutants into the air.  The Riverkeeper and GreenLaw have submitted comments to the EPD that include concerns that the permit does not provide for the adequate direct monitoring of the imposed emissions limits set by the EPD.

The Georgia Conservancy is committed to this issue. In light of EPD's failure to monitor King America's operations, we urge all of you to contact your local legislator and demand that legislature adequately fund environmental monitoring at the EPD and demand that the EPD monitor these polluters more intensely than they have in the past.

November 2013

From Green Law:

Ogeechee Riverkeeper (ORK) and King America Finishing have worked together to resolve a set of legal and regulatory battles that have been ongoing since a fish kill occurred in the Ogeechee River in May 2011. The settlement agreement puts in place comprehensive and stringent environmental protections and establishes programs to aid in restoration efforts along the river.  The new terms alleviate ORK’s prior concerns over the issuance of a new wastewater discharge permit for the Screven County textile manufacturing plant. ORK had mounted several legal challenges to the proposed permit, but will drop those challenges under the terms of the settlement agreement, which are memorialized in a Consent Degree being filed in federal court in Savannah today. For the more than two years that the permitting battle has been ongoing, King America has operated under strict technical and testing requirements dictated by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

Under the proposed Consent Decree, King America will make a $2.5 million monetary contribution to ORK to fund the organization’s continuing efforts to monitor and protect the ecosystem of the Ogeechee River. The manufacturing company has also already invested approximately half a million dollars towards the installation of new equipment in its wastewater treatment processes. King America will also spend another $2.5 million on additional upgrades at its plant to ensure that the Ogeechee River is a clean and well-protected natural resource for all of Georgia’s citizens.

“With the new measures set forth in our Consent Decree, along with the terms and conditions of the new permit, ORK is confident that King America’s discharge will comply with the state and federal regulatory structure while protecting the vibrant biological and ecological life that thrives in and along the Ogeechee River,” said Riverkeeper Emily Markesteyn. “We believe that this new permit will protect the river, and this settlement provides ORK with the means to not only closely monitor the river on an ongoing basis, but also creates a process for discussing changes to the permit in the event that any problems come to light. It is our belief that this is the first such provisions ever implemented in Georgia.  And with King American’s substantial contribution to our organization, we will be able to continue to monitor and improve river conditions for years to come.”

ORK intends to use the funds contributed by King America in this settlement to collect more comprehensive data on the Ogeechee than ever before and continue to serve as a watchdog for the health of the watershed.  ORK will closely monitor river conditions to eliminate harmful pollution from point and non-point sources along the Ogeechee. Through these and other programs, ORK will continue to serve as a regional and state leader of clean water advocacy through research, education and legislative initiatives.

Environmental lawyer and advocate Don Stack commended King America Finishing for its efforts since the fish kill.  “King America has stepped up to the plate and agreed to the most comprehensive water testing regiment that I’ve encountered in my nearly 30 years of advocating to protect the natural resources in the State of Georgia. I am glad that the company and ORK worked cooperatively to develop these programs, and we expect that King America will live up to their commitment to operate in an environmentally responsible manner.”

Hutton Brown, senior attorney with GreenLaw and co-counsel for ORK alongside Stack & Associates, P.C, noted that the size of the King America’s monetary donation makes it one of the largest settlement payments in Georgia history by a company for water-based environmental claims.

King America also expressed satisfaction with the resolution.  “After a long and productive dialogue with the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, we are pleased that we have finally been able to make peace with one another,” said Michael Beasley, president of King America.  “We look forward to continuing to work cooperatively with them in the coming months and years.”

After the May 2011 fish kill, it was discovered that King America had not updated its wastewater discharge permit when it installed new flame retardant lines at its plant in 2006.  King America entered into a Consent Order with the State agreeing to pay more than $1.3 million to fund Supplemental Environmental Projects.  Those projects include third party monitoring of King American’s discharge and analysis of both the wastewater and the river conditions. ORK will use some of King America’s settlement contribution to retain independent experts to conduct additional investigation monitoring and analysis.

King America Finishing is located in Screven County, Georgia, and employs almost 500 workers from Screven, Bullock, Jenkins and other surrounding counties. King America produces flame resistant fabrics use din clothing to protect workers in the electric utility, petrochemical and steel mill industries.

Through grassroots advocacy, public education and monitoring, ORK operates with a mission to protect, preserve and improve the water quality of the Ogeechee River basin. ORK has been instrumental in clean water advocacy in the state of Georgia for more than eight years.

For more information about the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, please visit: http://www.ogeecheeriverkeeper.org. For more information about King America, please visit: http://www.kingamericafinishing.com/press.html . - See more at: http://www.greenlaw.org/news-ogeechee-settlement-Nov2013#sthash.usVwBh89.dpuf

Read the Consent Decree