Investigating a complaint, officials from the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources on Thursday identified a total of eight dead fish of three species plus a crawfish. The finger-length fish were found at Highway 24 at Oliver and at Highway 301, said Tim Barrett, a regional supervisor.
While the numbers are small, especially compared to last year’s 70-mile long kill of an estimated 38,000 fish, state officials are operating with caution. Investigators also discovered fish with white patches, a sign of “infection,” Barrett said. He’s sent samples of dead and infected fish to Auburn University for analysis.
Last year’s fish kill was attributed to Columnaris, a bacterial infection that can overcome fish compromised by pollution, high temperatures and low flows.
Barrett’s crew will continue investigating to determine how far upstream they can find evidence of dead or sick fish. The DNR has not issued any swim or fishing advisories but Screven and Bulloch counties began posting notices Thursday at boat ramps cautioning citizens to avoid fishing or swimming in the river until further notice. Effingham County, downstream from where dead fish have been found, is advising citizens to “use caution around the Ogeechee River at this time” and asking for reports of dead fish.
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper learned of a possible fish kill from Bulloch County resident Earl McClendon, who documented five dead fish at Highway 301 on Monday. The Riverkeeper alerted the Environmental Protection Division Wednesday after verifying the find. EPD found only one dead fish at the site that day, but also alerted the wildlife office, which did its own investigation.
“The Riverkeeper has told people that I would not swim or eat fish in river because there’s an unpermitted discharge upstream that’s not been resolved,” said Dianna Wedincamp, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper.
The 2011 fish kill began just below the outflow pipe for King America Finishing, a large textile manufacturer in Screven County. A subsequent investigation revealed the company had been discharging illegally for five years from a fire retardant line. In a consent order currently stalled by litigation from activists who found it inadequate, the company was required to provide $1 million in not-yet-determined environmental projects along the river. Because the Georgia Water Quality Act allows for fines of up to $50,000 a day for violations, total possible fines could have exceeded $91 million.
EPD is again looking at the textile factory.
“We’ve got somebody at King American Finishing,” spokesman Kevin Chambers said Thursday afternoon. “They have not reported any process upsets. In other words, everything is routine as far as they are concerned.”
EPD took river water and effluent samples from the company’s outflow pipe and sent them to its lab for analysis.
Both Barrett and Chambers pointed to continuing drought as an issue on the Ogeechee. The flow at Rocky Ford, which is just above King America, dropped to 70 cubic feet per second on May 13, Chambers said. That’s low. A reading of 127 cubic feet per second is needed for the flow to be considered “adequate,” he said.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper board chair Ann Hartzell said she had been bracing herself for this news.
“I wish I could say I’m surprised,” said Hartzell, a Savannah resident. “We have been afraid with the low flows and the continuing, ongoing effluent and the test results below the (King America Finishing) pipe. We’re continuing to see elevated levels of ammonia, formaldehyde and changes in pH. I wish I could say I’m shocked. It just breaks my heart to see our beautiful river impacted this way and on a holiday weekend when people should be able to relax and enjoy it.”