State blames Ogeechee fish kill on drought

Some environmentalists question the assessment

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State regulators on Wednesday said the 100 or so fish that died recently in the Ogeechee succumbed to bacteria after being stressed by low flows and high water temperatures in the blackwater stream.

If that explanation sounds familiar, it’s because regulators came to the same conclusion when 38,000 fish died in the river in May 2011, marking the largest fish kill in state history.

“The Georgia Environmental Protection Division has concluded that drought-related conditions are the likely cause of a fish kill in east Georgia’s Ogeechee River, but an exact cause will never be known,” the EPD reported Wednesday.

As was the case last year, the dead fish were found only below the outfall pipe for King America Finishing, a textile processor in Screven County. After that massive fish kill, an EPD investigation revealed the textile plant had been operating an unauthorized discharge for its fire retardant line for five years. EPD took enforcement action against King America Finishing, including a $1 million penalty, and imposed additional monitoring requirements and discharge limits.

EPD Assistant Director Jim Ussery said the plant has been meeting those new standards. EPD performed additional water quality testing in the wake of the recent fish kill, taking water samples from the river on May 24 at Rocky Ford, the King America Finishing plant, U.S. 301, Ga. 24, Ga. 204 and U.S. 17. The samples were tested for 18 parameters — including ammonia, dissolved oxygen, color, conductivity, formaldehyde, pH, sulfide, and total suspended solids — and none were in excess of required limits.

In response to EPD’s announcement, Effingham County Emergency Manager Ed Myrick lifted the advisory on swimming and fishing in the river. Similar advisories were also lifted in Bulloch and Bryan counties, Myrick said.

The Ogeechee Riverkeeper also tested water samples at the plant’s outfall as well as above and below the pipe. Its analyst, Auburn assistant professor and aquatic ecologist Alan Wilson, is focused on ammonia levels, which he found to be 14 times higher at the discharge than above it. He found that river water just below the outflow pipe contained .78 parts per million ammonia, which would appear to put the effluent within the regulatory limit. EPD found 1.1 parts per million ammonia in the effluent, also well within the limit.

But Wilson said that limit is not protective enough.

“I think 10 milligrams per liter ammonia as a daily average is not acceptable,” Wilson said. “I think that’s too high.”

EPD did toxicity testing last summer that also pinpointed ammonia as a problem, Ussery said.

“Part of the requirement for them starting back up was not to release ammonia at that level,” he said.

The company now side streams ammonia condensate from its fire retardant operations and sends it off-site for re-use.

“This issue is verified each time EPD performs an inspection at (King America Finishing) by asking KAF representatives if the practice continues; by visually observing the tank used to store ammonia condensate for later shipping; and by reviewing the delivery records,” Bruce Foisy, of EPD’s coastal district office, wrote in an email.

Ussery said the dead fish were farther from King America Finishing in this recent fish kill.

“Last time the dead fish were within inches (of the outflow),” he said. This time we found stressed a fish quarter-mile downstream and dead fish three miles downstream.”

Differences in the river itself above and below the plant could influence where fish get more stressed, he said.

“It’s narrower and deeper upstream, I’m told,” Ussery said.

“Why are we not seeing (a fish kill) upstream but seeing it downstream? It’s farther, but water temperature does seem increase because of the river morphology.”

Wilson said it’s simpler than that.

“Think about where the fish died,” he said. “Something significant happened at the discharge. To ignore that is ridiculous.”


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