In August, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division granted a new discharge permit to King America Finishing in Screven County. This permit came a little more than a year after the largest fish kill in state history, when some 38,000 fish died below King America’s discharge pipe on the Ogeechee River. An investigation disclosed a line for which the company had not obtained a state permit.
Public outrage over the new permit, given the circumstances, was so intense that U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said at the time he was looking into federal intervention. Specifically, the Clean Water Act includes a clause under which the Environmental Protection Agency can delegate to a state the authority to enforce federal clean water laws.
Public and political pressure, applied in the right way and at the right time, can be pretty effective. On Tuesday, the state withdrew the permit it issued in August, and ordered King America to conduct a chemical and environmental analysis of its discharges into the Ogeechee.
The EPD also made new stipulations about what projects must be funded by a $1 million payment King America must make to the state, as part of the earlier (and now suspended) discharge permit. The company will have to pay for independent monitoring of its discharges for 18 months, fund improvements to the city of Millen’s new wastewater treatment plant (which also discharges into the Ogeechee) and help fund creation of a Georgia Southern University nature center to study the river’s ecology.
The analysis King America must fund is called an anti-degradation study, something the Ogeechee Riverkeeper had been advocating. Its purpose is to monitor compliance with a Clean Water Act law that says damage to a river’s quality is acceptable only when demonstrably important economic or social development makes it unavoidable.
Environmental consultant Barry Sulkin, who was slated to testify in a Riverkeeper challenge to the August permit, said Georgia is among many other states that virtually ignore the anti-degradation clause. “They’ve apparently misunderstood the concept,” Sulkin told the Savannah Morning News. “They’re saying it’s because we’re [EPD] not letting them do as much bad stuff as we allowed in the last one, but that doesn’t mean they did it correctly the last time either.”
“When you build a house, if you don’t lay the foundation correctly the house can’t stand up,” Savannah attorney Don Stack, who represents the Riverkeeper, told the Savannah paper. “EPD didn’t lay the concrete properly.”
Now everybody gets a do-over, which will include a period for public input (the lack of which was one of the problems with the last permit process). The proposed new EPD consent order is available online at georgiaepd.com.
The ultimate outcome of this process will tell us a lot about whose interests in Georgia’s waters state officials truly protect.