Ogeechee River pollution controversy and the widening chasm between bureaucracy and citizenry

At a recent event in Savannah, Governor Deal fielded a question about the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s handling of the ongoing controversy regarding fish kills in the Ogeechee River and polluted discharges by King America Finishing.

From the Statesboro Herald:

A reporter asked Deal if he had an opinion on whether King America Finishing should get a new permit to discharge waste into the Ogeechee River. After a record fish kill downstream from the plant in May 2011, the Environmental Protection Division issued a consent order requiring the company to fund $1 million worth of river cleanup projects. The agency issued a draft permit in March, which replaces an earlier draft permit EPD withdrew after protests and litigation threats from property owners along the river and the Ogeechee Riverkeeper.

“We know that we don’t want anything that’s going to pollute our waterways,” Deal said. “We don’t want anything that’s going to make our state a worse place from the standpoint of environmental degradation.”

But he said he is confident that EPD is working hard to make sure the river is monitored properly and that corrective steps take place. He expressed confidence in EPD Director Judson H. Turner and the agency’s board.

“Yes, I think we have a great director of our Environmental Protection Division and we have a great board,” Deal said. “I think they’re all conscious of this problem and hopefully are working to resolve it.”

Compare Deal’s sunny hopefulness with the op-ed (first discussed by Jim Galloway) by state Senator Buddy Carter, which reads in part:

In a letter dated May 10, 2013, I have informed EPD that I am opposed to the issuance of the proposed permit.

The proposed wastewater permit is the second issued to KAF since May 2011, when more than 38,000 fish, along with other wildlife such as alligators, turtles and birds, died in the largest recorded aquatic environmental incident in Georgia history. The dead fish and other wildlife were located downstream from the discharge pipe of King America. […]

So why am I opposing it now? Simply put, the public’s faith in EPD’s competency and ability to protect our environment and property owners has diminished to the point that they get a vote of no confidence. […]

During my years of public service, economic development has been one of my proudest accomplishments.

Jobs are important to our state and so is our environment. KAF and our environment can and will co-exist. As a conservative, I believe there is no contradiction between protecting our environment and supporting the economy- we can and will do both.

Before any permit is approved, EPD must do a better job of communicating to elected officials and especially to our citizens and instilling in all of us the confidence that they can adequately guarantee the safety of our taxpayers, property owners and environment.

Click here for Carter’s entire op-ed, which chronicles both the history of the current controversy and of Carter’s own negative dealings with the EPD over the years. Carter is seeking Jack Kingston’s Congressional seat; the fact that he’s willing to take such a strong stand against the EPD is a pretty clear sign of the regional politics.

And here’s the opening of an editorial this week from the Statesboro Herald, Our View: EPD puts King’s interests above Ogeechee River:

For the fourth time since a massive fish kill was discovered in the Ogeechee River in May 2011, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division held a public hearing to listen to concerns about the river and a proposed discharge permit for King America Finishing.

For the fourth time, residents asked many questions about EPD oversight of the river, most specifically why King continues to be allowed to discharge into the Ogeechee without a permit since at least 2006.

And for the fourth time, EPD representatives sat, didn’t say a word and promised to get back with answers to questioners at the hearing.

If EPD’s past actions are an indication to what the 200 or so people in attendance can expect the state agency to do following the latest hearing held Tuesday at Effingham County High School, they will receive little or no satisfactory response to their questions.

The Herald editorial page stops short of advocating the closure of the KAF plant, but does call for stiffer penalties and provides a brief roadmap that the EPD could follow to overcome “a ton of distrust.”

There are many dimensions to this controversy, including the political problem of a state and region that has adopted a small-government, pro-business stand now facing an ongoing environmental crisis that is decimating property values and quality of life along the Ogeechee.

Opponents of the current proposed pollution permit have offered a number of specific suggestions about what can be done to improve it. Some of those are detailed in this recent Savannah Morning News article.

Given the recent history, I find it difficult to be anything but cynical about the state’s ability to protect life in and along the river. My guess is that many who are calling now for stricter oversight will soon be demanding that King America Finishing be forced to shut down.

The EPD is taking comments through tomorrow (May 15). Some details via the Savannah Morning News:

EPD will accept written comments on the draft permit up until the close of business on May 15. Comments may be mailed to the Environmental Protection Division at 4220 International Parkway, Suite 101, Atlanta, GA 30354, Attention: Jane Hendricks, or sent via email to [email protected], with the words “NPDES permit reissuance King America Finishing (Dover Screven County)” in the subject line. Copies of the permit fact sheet, draft permit, and antidegradation analysis are available on EPD’s website at www.georgiaepd.org in the What’s New section.

11 comments

  1. Why shouldn’t advocates for the Ogeechee go ahead and call for the closure of KAF? The EPD, DNR, and Gov Deal wouldn’t shut down King America if there were bodies floating in the river. We have no reason not to ask for what is needed to really protect the river.

  2. Left Turn Only says:

    For years, the General Assembly has treated the EPD as the enemy and has done everything they can to thwart any meaningful environmental protection. The department has a sorry history back to the days when Harold (Never Saw A Polluter I Didn’t Love” Reheis and Joe “If They’re Rich They’re Right” Tanner “oversaw” the EPD. Those two old pirates, by the way, are now retired and raking it in representing big polluters as lobbyists and are responsible for much or today’s mischief.

    • GG says:

      Yes Indeed- The Flint River is under assault from Rehis and Tanner. Their latest scheme- Experimenting with Aquifer Storage and Recovery. “The Flint River would receive water pumped from aquifers under a proposal by the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission. .. The ASR plan was devised with help from companies with political and economic influence. The team includes Joe Tanner, former Georgia DNR commissioner; Harold Reheis, former director of the DNR’s environmental protection division; Allen Barnes, former EPD director and chief of staff in the Atlanta office of EPA; Brasfield & Gorrie, LLC, a privately held U.S. company in the construction industry; Etowah Water Bank LLC, and Merchant Capital Investments, Inc.”

  3. Ann Hartzell says:

    It’s so frustrating to hear the rhetoric coming from EPD. Director Jud Turner was quoted in the Statesboro Herald last week as saying, “…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…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.”

    What does he mean, EPD WILL address that over time? It’s been two years. And speaking of confusion and white noise: WHERE is the transparency on the testing? Where are the results? What chemicals are being found in the river and in what amounts?

    Turner says the Ogeechee is cleaner. Okay, it’s time to show us all of the numbers, from Mid-May of 2011 to the present.

    And as for adding effluent equalling 10% of the flow of the river, I really want someone to explain to me how discharging effluent is, as EPD posits, “protective of the river.” See page 3 of the recently released White Paper.

    http://www.gaepd.org/Files_PDF/whats_news/OgeecheeRiver_WhitePaper.pdf

    The contempt with which Director Turner dismisses people who are concerned about the Ogeechee is chilling.

    • Bill Dawers says:

      The idea that it would be OK for polluted effluent to comprise 10% of a river’s flow would be laughable if it were not so alarming.

      I’m sure there’s a property owner somewhere just downstream from KAF who would love to host EPD officials and the governor for a day on the Ogeechee when the river is low this summer and effluent comprises 10% of the flow. They could all swim, fish, cook the fish, drink from well water on an adjacent property, etc. What a lovely day.

        • mountainpass says:

          It’s sad, that is a beautiful river. It’s one of the longest undammed rivers in GA. I’ve spent a little time along it and the history is still there. The towns that are near it seem to be stuck in a bygone era and it’s as though you’ve stepped back in time traveling near the river.

          It’s a real jewel that the GA tourism department should explore. I guess now it’s to late for that as it’s already been damned.

  4. Robin Wheeler says:

    There are a lot of politicos that have announced campaigns for the next election cycle. The only votes I cast will be for the candidates that have fought for the Ogeechee and have been active at the public meetings and advisory groups. Even if it means crossing party lines. For this to have gone on as long as it has is outrageous. I am disqusted with the EPD as well as our Governor on this matter.

    • GG says:

      REMEMBER THE OGEECHEE, NO DEAL, NO CARTER, NOBODY that has abandoned the Obeechee. Carter’s comments to the EPD are a day late and a dollar short. Coastal Georgia isn’t interested in an apology tour at this point.

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