The state Environmental Protection Division will hold a public hearing Tuesday on King America Finishing’s draft permit to discharge into the Ogeechee River, and agency director Jud Turner said he wants to meet with area residents soon.
Turner said he is open to conducting a forum with Ogeechee River basin residents to discuss what has happened since the massive fish kill nearly two years ago and what it is being done now.
“I’m going to be down in the basin and find the right forum to have a healthy conversation where we can start,” he said. “I’m not under any illusions that everybody is going to want to praise EPD at the end of the day. But we ought to work off the facts and hope we can find the right vehicles to do that.”
A white paper on the river, which was the suggestion of Effingham County Commissioner Vera Jones, was released in March. The EPD also has posted the draft permit and the consent order for King America Finishing, along with an antidegradation analysis, on the agency’s website.
“It’s a good time now, I think, to have a full vetting of the issues,” Turner said.
Turner admitted the public, particularly along the Ogeechee, doesn’t believe what the EPD says. He said that needs to be corrected.
“It’s my view that we have some work to do to engender trust in the community about what’s going on at the river,” he said.
Tuesday’s upcoming public hearing — at Effingham County High School at 7 p.m. — is designed to take comments and not answer questions. That too has been a problem, Turner noted, because many speakers have questions but can’t get answers during the meetings. EPD representatives have met individually with residents and others to answer queries.
The comments at the meetings and those that have been submitted to EPD have been included in some of the new directives aimed at King America Finishing, Turner said. The antidegradation analysis was not required by EPD but was conducted after the Ogeechee Riverkeeper requested it.
While the proposed stipulation of third-party monitoring has received some support, other portions of the supplemental environmental projects and the fine levied against King America Finishing have been derided by river residents. Turner said the company’s discharge into the river is not at nearly the same level as it was two years ago.
Turner also said he did not foresee King America being handed a “death penalty,” ordered to cease its discharge permanently, for violating its permit. The EPD will take comments on the draft permit until May 15.
In May 2011, more than 38,000 fish were killed along a 70-mile stretch of the river, all downstream from the plant. Although King America could have faced penalties of up to $90 million, EPD has only required the company to pay for $1 million in supplemental environmental projects — an action that has drawn the ire of environmentalists and riverfront residents and legal challenges by the Ogeechee Riverkeeper.
Environmentalists have blamed King America for that fish kill, along with one in May 2012 that killed dozens of fish downstream from the plant.
Turner said the river has had to weather other environmental factors, such as a lengthy drought that plagued the entire state. The river flow slows down, the river itself gets shallower and there is more silt and there are dissolved oxygen problems, he said.
“There are few discharges and there’s a big bull’s-eye on King America Finishing, even if some of these environmental stressors are drought-related,” he said.
Turner said a land application system, rather than a river discharge of the plant’s wastewater, is not feasible because of the area it would need to occupy. He also said the discharge — limited to 10 percent of the river’s flow under the draft permit — is much cleaner and more scrutinized than before.
“If you care about the river, I challenge you to tell me why it’s of anybody’s interest to comment on and act as if there is some great conspiracy to let King America Finishing discharge pollutants into the river to the same degree, uncleaned up, that we found in 2011,” he said. “That’s really the implication, if not the direct accusation, and it’s factually not right. You can test the river all you want. Over time, our belief is that we will address some of that confusion and white noise.”