It’s easy to get mad over the way the Ogeechee River has been treated, first by King America, then by state authorities. Dumping by King America in 2011 caused the worst fish kill in the river in memory, and the state’s Environmental Protection Division responded with what amounts to a slap on the wrist.
But it’s probably a good idea to reflect on a few things before firing off that angry letter to the EPD.
First, that agency has been all but gutted under recent administrations, this during a time when the state was growing. That means that at a time when we needed more EPD “boots on the ground” to keep tabs on what was going on, we got less.
The lesson there is if you restrict government’s ability to protect the environment you get limited environmental protection.
Second, the Ogeechee River has been under stress for years. Some 40 permit holders, ranging from industries to municipal wastewater treatment plants, are permitted to dump millions of gallons of treated wastewater into the river each day. And there are frequent warnings against swimming in the Ogeechee due to bacteria, and high levels of mercury have prompted warnings about eating caught in the river.
What’s more, a year before the fish kill, the Ogeechee was named as one of the South’s most endangered natural places by the Southern Environmental Law Center — in that case because of plans to build a coal fired power plant upstream in Washington County.
After heavy opposition by environmental groups, that project lost its biggest backer in January, when Cobb County EMC pulled support. It’s unclear whether that will pull the plug on the plant. But threats to the river remain.
As former Riverkeeper Chandra Brown notes, there’s a lot of sewage going into the river — and into area groundwater and streams due to partially treated waste being sprayed on land then finding its way through sandy soil.
Brown also is troubled by what isn’t being tested for, such as pharmaceuticals which aren’t removed by sewage treatment plants and are winding up in our water supply. She believes in advanced treatment and total reuse of wastewater, an expensive alternative to current practice, “but we’re obviously paying for the cost either way,” she said.
Those who say we can’t afford to better protect the Ogeechee may want to look at this as more than a case of environmentalists trying to save fish. There’s also money at stake.
After all, there’s a reason the biggest festival in Bryan County is named after the Ogeechee. It isn’t because it’s one of the state’s most endangered rivers.