ATLANTA — Environmental officials agreed Tuesday to conduct a new review of a Screven County textile plant implicated in a massive fish kill last year on the Ogeechee River, a decision that came shortly before the issue was headed to trial.
Judson Turner, director of the state's Environmental Protection Division, said in a statement that his agency was withdrawing a wastewater permit discharge issued in August to King America Finishing. Instead, the agency will conduct a review to determine whether the cost of the pollution produced by the plant is outweighed by social or economic development goals.
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group, had filed a legal challenge to overturn that permit because it wanted Georgia authorities to conduct the review that was announced Tuesday. It also sought further restrictions on the pollution discharged by the firm.
"I am not under any illusion that they're going to go through that and magically think this facility shouldn't be allowed to operate," said Hutton Brown, a lawyer for Greenlaw, which is representing the Ogeechee Riverkeeper. "But nevertheless, they've got to go through it."
EPD Assistant Director Jim Ussery said his agency did not believe the review should have been required, saying the law only applies to new plants and those that are expanding. Ussery said the agency decided to conduct the study to avoid losing time if a judge ultimately ruled against the state. In the meantime, the plant will continue to operate under its existing old permit and additional restrictions put in place after the fish kill.
"We decided to avoid the delays that litigation would cause," he said.
An estimated 39,000 fish died last year below the company's outfall pipe into the river.
A government investigation found that the fish died from a bacterial infection likely caused by a number of environmental factors that weakened the animals and lowered their immunity, such as the summer heat and low water. While scientists said chemical concentrations in the river were not high enough to kill fish by themselves, those chemicals may have proved lethal when combined with other factors.
Subsequent inspections of the plant showed it was operating two production lines without a permit.
A proposed consent order released Tuesday also details how King America would spend $1 million in projects meant to improve the river. The company previously agreed to pay that sum to settle accusations that it broke environmental laws. As part of the agreement, the company will pay more than $766,000 to establish an Ogeechee River nature center.