It’s been almost six months since the Ogeechee River was ruined for the summer of 2011 with the seemingly mysterious death of nearly 40,000 fish in a 70-mile stretch of the river. But it was only about a month ago that the state Environmental Protection Division, which monitors the state’s waterways, determined what many Ogeechee residents and the Ogeechee Riverkeeper group had been saying practically since the fish kill first happened — that discharge from King America Finishing in Screven County was to blame.
Just last month, the EPD issued a consent order for the finishing plant to spend $1 million in environmental improvements to the Ogeechee River for violating its discharge permits. According to the EPD investigation opened after the May 25 fish kill, King America, which applies treatments including fire retardants to fabrics, has been violating its permit since 2005, dumping formaldehyde and other chemicals into the river.
But the Ogeechee Riverkeeper group — through a lawsuit filed last week — is saying the EPD should have sought the public’s opinion and it “failed to protect citizens and honor their right to have input” on the consent order, according to a recent Statesboro Herald article by Holli Deal Bragg.
“EPD left us with no choice but to file this lawsuit,” Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp said. “Citizens throughout the basin are simply outraged that the state not only failed to prevent this catastrophe, but is excluding those most impacted by the catastrophe at every turn. King Finishing seems to be … priority, not the citizens who live, work and play along the Ogeechee River.”
The lawsuit comes on the heels of yet another fish kill, this one in Brier Creek in Richmond and Burke counties. And much like in May along the Ogeechee, residents along Brier Creek are questioning the EPD’s response to the disaster. So far, no advisories have been issued against swimming in or consuming fish from the creek. During the Ogeechee fish kill, the EPD was criticized for taking its time in issuing advisories for affected areas.
If it didn’t seem like it before, it certainly seems now that the EPD — the state agency “charged with protecting Georgia’s air, land and water resource,” according to its website — is falling down on the job. If our water resources were being adequately protected, couldn’t these disasters have been avoided? Or, in the King America case, at least not have been able to continue for five or six years? We should not really be surprised. During the past decade state lawmakers have weakened the power of the EPD to enforce environmental regulations to the point that the agency today should not be taken seriously as a protector of the environment.
The fact of the matter is that the EPD has lost the trust of the public it is supposed to be serving. We hope the agency will do everything it can to win back that trust and work harder in the future to protect the state’s natural resources.