Dirty Dozen: Pollution concerns in Altamaha and Ogeechee rivers; state weighs in on permits

Local News

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – The Dirty Dozen, an annual report card on the health of waterways throughout Georgia, says there are still serious concerns and challenges in 2020.

For the eighth year in a row, the report cites the colored and smelly discharge into the Altamaha River by the Rayonier Plant in Jesup.

While the plant does have a current discharge permit, the Altamaha Riverkeeper made an effort to stop it but lost on appeal earlier this year.

The Riverkeeper claims that loss was due “to the EPD (Environmental Protection Division) taking an extraordinary step to assist Rayonier” by ultimately changing rules to allow the permit. Some have actually dubbed it the “Rayonier Rule.”

Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, told reporters that “the EPD’s mission is supposed to be environmental protection.”

“But the more experience you get in dealing with EPD the more you understand that they have this culture where they use ‘customer service’ type language to deal with these people, with permits where they are more focused on allowing the businesses to operate how the businesses want to operate,” he said, “and focusing on the businesses as customers versus citizens of the state as their customers that they’re supposed to be protecting.”

Environmental Protective Division officials took exception to that characterization, telling WSAV that “EPD issues permits that are protective of human health and the environment and comply with the Clean Water Act and the Georgia Water Quality Control Act.”

EPD’s take on the permit legal dispute: while the Rayonier permit was appealed by the Riverkeeper, it was upheld in court.

Another area of concern is the discharge into the Ogeechee River from the Milliken plant which makes fire retardant clothing. In 2011, discharges from the plant, which was then owned by King America, were blamed for a massive fish kill.

In 2014, Milliken assumed ownership, and now the EPD is considering a new permit for that company. A virtual public hearing was scheduled for Tuesday night.

Ogeechee Riverkeeper Damun Mullis, who nominated the Milliken Plant for the Dirty Dozen, said that recent studies by his organization are showing damage to fish from chemicals. He says the company now is routinely violating pollution control standards.

He also says the EPD has reportedly been considering a somewhat less stringent permit, but he believes it should be more strict, not less.

“Everybody should really find it disturbing at how easily Georgia EPD does renew some of these permits that are problematic, and it really shows a failure in our regulatory apparatus that does lead to confidence for the public,” Mullis told reporters.

Again, EPD responded by telling WSAV it “takes very seriously our mission to protect and restore Georgia’s environment through our NPDES permitting program. EPD will carefully consider all relevant public comments on its draft permits and documents our responses to those comments in the record for the final permits.”

The Dirty Dozen report also listed an area of concern in the St. Simons Sound, i.e. the Golden Ray Salvage Plan. It says the capsizing of the ship may become the “most costly marine disaster in U.S. history” and that the salvage plan underway has not been fully evaluated.

And the report listed the Spaceport Plan at Cumberland Island as a “boondoggle” that may cost taxpayers millions, but more importantly, could endanger the unique natural resources in that region.

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