The Ogeechee River is in southern Georgia, just south of Savannah, where it expands majestically into the ocean near Fort McAllister.
The King America Finishing plant is 45 miles up the river. It is in the process of renewing its permit with the state Environmental Protection Division, which allows it to pollute the river.
According to Wikipedia and the late, noted author and photographer Jack Leigh in “The Ogeechee River and Its People (2004),” “The Ogeechee River has been poisoned to the point where most consider any fish taken from the river to be unsafe to eat and unsafe for children to swim.” In May 2011, the King America Finishing plant caused the largest fish kill in Georgia history. The poisoning from this plant continues to this day.
On Thursday, May 7, I attended a public hearing between the people in defense of the Ogeechee River and the Georgia EPD. The forum took place at Effingham High School. The local news stations were there, along with local newspapers. There were about 100 people in attendance, 75 of whom got up and spoke for approximately five minutes each, with some being told by the EPD that their five minutes was up if they went on too long.
The event lasted almost three hours, as one person after another spoke about what’s happened to their river. A young woman, who ran a canoeing school for children, spoke about how she wished she’d known about the poisonous dumping into the river and how she was concerned about the exposure to her young students. She has since closed her canoeing school and is rightfully bitter about the situation.
Another person spoke about the loss of bait and tackle shops that once dotted the Ogeechee River, and how “these are jobs, too!” One man spoke ardently about the once-robust Ogeechee River fishing industry.
“Now, the fish are all dead,” he said.
Another spoke about the loss of wildlife, such as osprey and bald eagles that were common sights along the river. One fellow broke down in tears when he said, “Now it wasn’t at all uncommon to see a dead baby deer along the shoreline, whereas the momma deer knows better than to drink out of the river and drank from the ponds.”
He went on to say that, unlike the Ogeechee, the ponds are full of fish and potable water for wildlife. Therefore, the problem is clearly not systemic to the area. A woman wanted to know why the tree roots along the shoreline now have a white film. One man suggested that they simply keep their waste in a storage facility on their property rather than sharing it with the rest of us. Several folks then went on to speak about their worries about potential groundwater contamination from the plant’s onsite retention ponds.
At that point, some stood up and demanded to have their wells checked by the EPD for contamination and spoke of fears for their children and grandchildren who rely on well water. Most in attendance have lived and played on the Ogeechee River for many generations and feel their beloved river is dying and they are helpless to stop it.
It is my understanding that the lines that feed into the river from the plant are hidden, running beneath the water’s surface. No one knows openly, exactly what chemicals are being dumped into the river on a regular basis, but the approved list of chemicals that currently are being dumped into the river include cadmium, formaldehyde, chromium, ammonia nitrogen, sulfide peroxide and other chemicals that are associated with fire retardants.
Interestingly, King America Finishing moved their plant and operations from Illinois to regulation-friendly Georgia when they were told to stop their polluting practices there.
I don’t know why the EPD continues to issue this company permits to pollute our river, but they do. From what I could make of the convoluted agreement between them, they are allowed to dump up to 10 percent of stream flow to ensure adequate dilution (basically meaning, the ratio of chemicals to river water can be no more than 10. Currently, how and when they run the lines into the Ogeechee River is all being done on the honor system, and there is no oversight in place.
I have personally seen the effects of their polluting practices where I live 40 miles downstream. It creeps into our inlets and marinas before it spills out into the ocean.
Last month, I saw a narrow, continuous stream of what appeared to be white paint that meandered as far as I could see up the river. It’s not to say that the river always is full of visible muck where I live; it isn’t. But the King American Finishing plant has definitely done big dumps into the river, such as the one that caused the fish kill in May 2011, when 38,000 fish were documented to have been killed.
I suspect it has learned from that mess and now is doing smaller, continuous discharges into the river.
This type of continual dumping is designed to generate a lower water/chemical ratio. It looks better on overall water tests; however, it is just as deadly to the river’s long term health.
Unfortunately, this type of watercourse calamity is not unfamiliar to me. I grew up in northern New Jersey during the early 1970s, when the once-pristine, turtle-and-fish filled brook I knew as a child died in a matter of years. I will never forget the first time I saw the color of my brook turn bright green with what appeared to be radiator fluid. I learned that The Drew Chemical Company was 2 miles upstream, and that it was the cause of that pollution. Although we never had a visible spill like the green one, continuous polluting went on regularly from then on by that company, along with other chemical and pharmaceutical companies that were enticed by lax regulation and tax incentives to move to the area upstream from me.
There is no mistaking the smell of a dead river, and the brook took on a smell that was, at times, a combination of chemicals, sewer and death. All the fish and turtles died, or hopefully left like my family did.
I thought about the challenge faced by the King America Finishing Company with what it can alternatively do with its waste. I came up with several possible solutions, including running a rail line from the Savannah Rail Yard up to the company’s facility. If the decision makers in the state of Georgia really want to help this company so much, they should facilitate the permits to lay down the tracks for a rail line that will run up the river to them. This line also could service the coal and nuclear facilities that are up the river, too. Savannah’s own CSX has been moving toxic chemicals safely for years.
However, the rail option is obviously long term. For the time being, they need to utilize over-the-road tanker trucks, which are perfectly capable of delivering the waste to one of many refuse facilities that are in the business of proper removal and storage of toxic waste. Some of these facilities may even be able to recycle several of these chemicals.
It’s time for the King America Finishing Company to factor waste-removal expenses into its budget and step into this decade. Dumping into the Ogeechee River is not the right thing to do, and it knows it. The company has grumbled about the loss of jobs the area would suffer should they close or leave. On the contrary, should it comply with today’s standards of toxic waste removal, it would make jobs by creating an in-house waste management team. Effectively, the person who flips the lever that feeds the lines into the Ogeechee River should lose his job.
Please call and email our congressman, senator and state senators, along with the Georgia EPD, and ask them to not renew the permit for The King American Finishing Company to pollute in the Ogeechee River.
EPD DIRECTOR: Judson H. Turner, Atlanta 404-657-2086
Rockwood is a Richmond Hill resident.