A spokesman for Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division said a permit issued this week that allows King America Finishing to continue releasing wastewater into the Ogeechee River would “make the discharge the most highly regulated in the state.”
Also, the Screven County textiles plant, which employs about 500 workers, would be closely monitored and fined for having operated for years without a permit.
King America agreed to fund $1.3 million in environmental-improvement projects to benefit the Ogeechee River under a new consent order reached with the Georgia EPD, EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said Wednesday.
The company also will pay additional money, including $2.5 million to the Ogeechee Riverkeeper Organization, said Don Stack, an attorney representing the organization regarding civil suits against King America.
“The agreement with King America Finishing replaces the original $1 million consent order and includes an additional $301,100 for Supplemental Environmental Projects,” Chambers said.
In 2011, EPD discovered King America was operating without a permit by dumping wastewater from its fire-retardant lines into the river. The discovery came about during an investigation of a massive fish kill that left about 38,000 dead fish rotting along over 70 miles of the Ogeechee downstream from the plant’s wastewater discharge pipe.
King America’s president Mike Beasley said his company is satisfied with the outcome.
This week, EPD issued a new wastewater discharge permit. The move came after citizens protested an earlier proposal to issue a permit and fine the company $1 million, Chambers said.
“Tougher limits on the discharge and increased monitoring requirements were written into the (new) EPD permit,” he said. “These conditions make the discharge the most highly regulated in the state.”
Many Ogeechee River advocates, including the Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization, blamed King America for the fish kill, in spite of EPD officials ruling the fish kill was caused by columnaris, a bacterial disease caused by environmental stress.
While river flow was at low levels due to drought at the time of the fish kill, there were no dead fish discovered upstream of the plant. Diana Wedincamp, who was executive director of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization at the time, said she believed chemicals dumped into the river by King America, paired with low water levels, caused the fish kill.
Chambers said provisions to control wastewater discharge during drought conditions are included in the list of mandates the company must follow due to the permit.
“To protect the river during drought, EPD included an unprecedented requirement to limit the wastewater discharge to no more than 8 percent of the total river flow, or the design capacity of the treatment system, whichever is lower,” he said.
“This new permit and consent order are based on a significant amount of time and effort from the associates in the EPD Watershed Protection Branch,” EPD Director Judson Turner said. “The process also involved public comment and feedback, which helped to improve both the order and the permit. The result will be long term environmental benefits for this important river.”
Several public hearings were held after the fish kill, and a second, much smaller fish kill a year later in May 2012. Citizens spoke against issuing a permit and complained the fine was not sufficient.
“Since the 2011 fish kill, the plant has been operating under stringent requirements set by EPD,” Chambers said. “Fish have been restocked in the Ogeechee River and are abundant and healthy.”
The Supplemental Environmental Projects that King is ordered to fund include a partnership between Georgia Southern University and the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy in Augusta, which will work together on the Ogeechee River Research SEP.
“The GSU Department of Geology and Geography will focus on atmospheric and terrestrial processes in the watershed, including a study of impacts to the river from drought and flooding,” Chambers said. “The GSU Biology Department will work with SNSA on biological processes in the Ogeechee River.”
This work includes the installation of four continuous water-quality monitors, he said. “This project will take 36 months to complete at a cost of $1,067,491, which includes the additional $301,100.”
Stack said negotiations between his firm and King America’s attorneys resulted in the plant spending an additional $2.5 million on changes and modifications to the plant, following about $1 million already spent on plant improvements.
The $2.5 million to be paid to the Ogeecheee Riverkeeper organization will fund “the organization’s continuing efforts to monitor and protect the ecosystem of the Ogeechee River,” Stack said.
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper will work with King America and the EPD to further modify the permit issued, he said.
The organization “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 filed in federal court in Savannah (Wednesday),” he said.