Ogeechee Riverkeeper: Still Fighting Discharge - Local news, weather, sports Savannah | WSAV On Your Side

Ogeechee Riverkeeper: Still Fighting Discharge

Ogeechee Riverkeeper: Still Fighting Discharge

Discharge pipe into Ogeechee River Discharge pipe into Ogeechee River

For the many who live and work along the Ogeechee River, two important dates are coming up. February 26 and March 5. And both are related to a sore subject: the fish kill in May of 2011.

The fish kill was the largest in Georgia history, some 33 thousand fish. King America Finishing, an industrial plant in Screven County was later fined one million dollars for dumping several chemicals (including ammonia and formaldehyde) without a permit. When the fine was announced it came in the form of a "consent order" from the state of Georgia. But at the time many residents along the Ogeechee complained that they had not gotten a say in what punishment should be levied against the company. Locals said they had the right to have a "voice" since they were the ones affected by the fish kill.

The Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization filed suit and finally forced a hearing in Bulloch County where a judge there sided with residents. He said they at least should have had input on the punishment the company should face.

Now almost two years after the fish kill, the opportunity for people to speak their piece is coming up. On Tuesday March 5, a public hearing will be held at the Effingham County High School starting at 7 o'clock in the evening. "We never felt the consent order truly showed the harm done to the river and people who live along the river don't either," says Emily Markesteyn, executive director of Ogeechee Riverkeeper. "And it doesn't provide meaningful remediation for what happened."

Markesteyn said many along the river "are still very disappointed about what happened and about the response from the state."

The Ogeechee Riverkeeper has engaged in a long standing legal battle against the Georgia Department of Environmental Protection (EPD) about its response to the fish kill and its decisions regarding a permit for the industrial plant. For the average person it may seem like nothing more than a maze of legal mumbo jumbo. "But unfortunately, this was all necessary," says Markesteyn. "We just want people to know that we have been working on this, we will not give up and it is being pursued."

Another issue of contention is the new permit for King America Finishing which was granted last fall. However, a few months later the EPD lifted that permit saying that the company needed to perform a degradation study. But the EPD has allowed the company to continue discharging. Thus the second bone of contention. Since November, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper has been attempting to force the EPD to make the company halt its discharge all together. "The law clearly states polluters need to have a permit, this company does not," says Markesteyn.

For several months, the Riverkeeper has attempted to get the EPD Director Judson Turner into court. On February 26, a hearing will be held to ask the EPD to justify why the discharge continues. That hearing however will not take place in Bulloch County where the first one was held. It will take place in Spalding County where EPD Director Turner lives. The State required Turner to be served where he lived, something that was viewed as a stalling tactic by some and an issue of concern for the Riverkeeper organization. "Certainly you have to question how much the people in Spalding County know about the Ogeechee river basin," says Markesteyn.

Meanwhile, the most recent information on the discharge and the efforts of EPD may come from Effingham County Commissioners. Forrest Floyd, a newly elected commissioner in district 1 (which includes some of the Ogeechee River) says in late January "Effingham Day" was held at the state legislature. While in Atlanta, Floyd says he specifically asked that they meet with the EPD and says several officials including director Judson Turner did speak with the local delegation of about 30 people. "For one thing, they told us that ammonia is no longer being discharged," said Floyd. "And there was relief from that. But what is being discharged exactly, we still don't know."

Floyd says many of his constituents remain afraid to use the river and angry because property values have been affected. "At this point no one really knows what the status is, there's no permit currently, they continue to discharge," says Floyd. "People continue to be concerned, the river has been shut down three times since of May of 2011 due to dead fish."

Floyd did tell us he thinks EPD is trying to do the right thing. "They're trying to balance the jobs at the plant with the environment," he said. "the obvious effort is to save those jobs. On the other hand our concern is the impact on our county and our taxpayers."

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