An environmental group said Monday a study found “forever chemicals” in fish caught in the Ogeechee River in Bryan County, and blames it on discharges from the same Screven County plant responsible for a 2011 fish kill that left tens of thousands of fish dead.
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper said PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyls and perfluoroalkyls, were found in the tissue of largemouth bass, redbreast sunfish and bluegill caught this fall between the I-16 and Highway 80 bridges where the river flows between Bryan and Effingham counties.
Those chemicals are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down and accumulate in “wildlife, plants and humans,” ORK said in its press release announcing its findings.
It’s unclear to what level fish are contaminated or whether they’re safe to eat. The Ogeechee is already under consumption restriction guidelines from the state due to contamination from mercury.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website says PFAS are found in everything from “cookware, pizza boxes and stain repellents,” and that “most people have been exposed to PFAs,” while also noting there is evidence “that exposure to can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans,” according to the EPA’s website.
It said the most common health problem associated with PFAs is increased cholesterol, but there have been limited findings such as low infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer and thyroid hormone disruption.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper Damon Mullis said ORK’s ongoing study was commissioned after the group learned Milliken’s Longleaf facility in Screven County was discharging the chemicals into the river during an investigation leading up to the facility’s permit renewal in 2014.
At that time, ORK said the facility was required to test for PFAs and provided results that were reviewed and accepted by both ORK and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, “as evidence the facility was not discharging these chemicals.”
Mullis said ORK now believes the facility has been discharging PFAs since 2006.
Milliken, which did respond by deadline to a request for more information on ORK claims, is currently in the process of having its permit to discharge into the Ogeechee renewed by EPD.
The ORK and the Georgia Water Coalition, which recently listed weaker pollution limits on the plant as part of its 2020 Dirty Dozen report, say they believe the draft permit being considered by EPD would further endanger the river’s health.
The river has made the list of the state’s most endangered waterways before.
In 2011, the GWC listed the Ogeechee as No. 1 in annual report for the fish kill, which was caused by discharges into the river from Milliken’s predecessor, King America Finishing Company.
Mullis said in an email his group will continue to push the EPD to “perform a more robust study by a third party to determine how widespread the contamination is and if the contaimination is at levels that warrant consumption guidelines.”
“At this point this is what we know: 1. Milliken is discharging significant amounts of PFAS chemicals. 2. The fish have been contaminated and PFAS chemicals are present in their tissue. 3. PFAS chemicals are dangerous and have negative human health consequences,” he said. “What we don’t know: 1. How widespread the contamination is. 2. If Milliken is the only source of contamination. Milliken should have done a fish tissue study back in 2014 and ORK is asking GA EPD to require them to do it now, before the permit is issued. This study will go a long way to answer those questions.”