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Thoughts on Ogeechee, riverkeeper

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POSTED: July 9, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Ogeechee Riverkeeper Day is Saturday over at Loves Seafood. That’s a good thing.
Were it not for that group and its members’ willingness to stand up against powerful interests, the company responsible for the worst fish kill in our memory of that river might have gotten off scot free. And were it not for the public’s engagement and some good lawyers and the Riverkeeper, the company might still be polluting.
So yes, I am a fan of the Riverkeeper, and grateful for them — and for all such groups with members willing to put their hearts and hands and often their wallets where their mouths are.
With that said, I think what has puzzled me the most about the King America fish kill and the resulting public anger directed at both that corporation and the EPD — anger which was highly justified — is that it wasn’t noticeable in 2010, when the river was named one of the 10 most endangered places by the Southeast Envornmental Law Center.
This, mind you,  was a year before the fish kill. It was reported by us and other media, yet few outside the Riverkeeper seemed to notice.
And apart from groups like Riverkeeper, there wasn’t much of an outcry from the public back in 2009 when EPA advisories against eating fish caught in the river were issued because the fish contained too much mercury, though it was reported by area media — thanks largely to the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, who made sure we stayed on top of it.
But maybe little things like mercury warnings don’t matter because we’ve come to expect it. After all, there have been such warnings issued off and on since for years. Decades, probably.
Remember swimming advisories at Kings Ferry because of high levels of bacteria in the water? Those have been posted for more than a decade, too, and probably longer than that, but I don't recall much of a fuss being made.
Maybe I missed it, or forgot it. Or maybe it’s because at the end of the day, one big fish kill is more noticeable than a river being slowly poisoned over time, killed, as it were, not with a bang, but by paper cut.
And by river I mean not only the water, but those creatures that depend on it. Which, if you think about it, is not only fish and wildlife, but us.
Back in 2011, I asked former Ogeechee Riverkeeper Chandra Brown for some idea of just what was going into the river — legally — in the years before the fish kill that fired public opinion.
I wanted some perspective, you see. And I got some.
Brown sent me a list of the discharge permit holders for 2000. It had the names of 44 facilities on it, ranging from private industries to municipalities and counties and more.
Among them are some familiar names, including Richmond Hill’s famous Elbow Swamp — after years of periodically violating its discharge permit, that facility will soon be replaced by a larger, more environmentally friendly wastewater treatment plant — and Fort Stewart, which in 2000 was permitted to discharge five million gallons a day.
Another treatment plant serving both Stewart and Hinesville was permitted in 2000 to dump another 7.15 million gallons of wastewater a day into the Ogeechee through the Canoochee Creek Tributary.
In all, and in no particular order, least of all alphabetical, various facilities in Bryan, Liberty, Tattnall, Bulloch, Taliaferro, Hancock, McIntosh, Chatham, Jefferson, Glascock, Warren, Screven, Burke, Jenkins, Emanuel and Greene counties held permits to discharge into the Ogeechee or one of its tributaries. Some of the counties had two, three, even four facilities.
Two facilities from the 2000 list were no longer active, Brown warned, but the remaining facilities combined were permitted to pour tens of millions of gallons of presumably treated wastewater legally into the river. Every day.
I didn’t get to the story  — something more pressing came up and I put the Ogeechee idea on the back burner, then something else came up and so it went. But somewhere in the back of my mind I kept thinking about that list, and what it represented.
So last night I did some poking around on the internet, but it’s slow going unless you  know where you’re going. What I learned was there are now 57 facilities permitted to dump into the river, according to the Georgia River Network. It’s a safe assumption they’re permitted to dump more than the 44 facilities were allowed back in 2000.
And I thought back to what Brown said in her email as she reacted to my reaction to the list. In short, I told her that was quite a bit of stuff being pumped into a river many tended to look at as being pristine prior to King America and the fish kill.
“Yep, there’s a lot of poop going into the river,” wrote Brown, who was an engaging and able advocate for the river before she stepped down. “There are at least 40+ facilities dumping sewage into the river and many more that are spraying partially treated waste onto the land, resulting in contaminated groundwater and streams.”
Meaning both “direct dischargers and the companies and municipalities spraying waste on the land all pollute our waters,” as Brown put it.
What troubled her back in 2011, apart from the difficulty involved in regular people finding out what was going into the river and a government that kept gutting the EPD and making it harder for it to do its job, was there were no requirements for tests on what pharmaceuticals were going into the water via sewage treatment plants.
She said there were no requirements to test for such things.  Far as I could tell, there are still no requirements for that, or for making communities reuse all wastewater. And far as I can tell, more pressures will be put on the river as the area continues to grow. It’s called progress.
More people means more stuff into the river, some of it treated — some of it not treated very well, perhaps — some not.  
And then there’s stormwater, which given its potential mixture of rainwater laced with increasing amounts of  fertilizers and weed killers and motor oils and so much more, is something the river needs more of like it needs a hole in the head.
But perhaps, more people in the Coastal Empire will also mean more who care enough to join the Riverkeeper and support its mission of protecting a vital and beautiful resource so our grandkids and their kids can enjoy it as we do.
And that will be a good thing, too.

 

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