Few people disagree that the Ogeechee River needs more scrutiny after a major 2011 fish kill, but the extent and cost of such oversight continues to fuel a broadening debate.
King America Finishing, a Screven County, Ga., textile firm, came under scrutiny after 38,000 fish died along a 70-mile stretch of the river. State investigators found the company had added a fire retardant treatment process that generated wastewater discharged to the Ogeechee, in violation of its permit.
In the most recent consent order proposed by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, the company has agreed to finance $1 million in “supplemental environmental projects” to benefit the fragile blackwater river.
The centerpiece of that proposal involves paying Georgia Southern University $766,391 to study the river’s ecology and monitor its water quality.
“This particular project is really focused on the health of the river,” said Charles Patterson, the university’s vice president for research and economic development.
Scientists from several departments plan to evaluate long-term water-quality effects related to dissolved organic matter, decreased oxygen, droughts and drought cycles, he said.
According to the school’s proposal, the studies would also be expanded to include analysis of the river’s flood plain by faculty from the Department of Geology and Geography.
“The landscape, climate, and subsurface hydrology of the flood plain plays a major role in water delivery to the stream channel and is a major source of chemical, nutrient, and sediment flux to the river,” the school’s proposal said.
Critics of the proposed consent order, which is out for public comment through Nov. 15, include Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp.
“We do oppose it because it is not protecting the Ogeechee River and doesn’t offer appropriate studies to do an adequate job of analyzing everything,” she said.
The group also wants state officials to require that more money be spent by King America, which has also agreed to finance third-party monitoring of the plant’s discharge for 18 months, at a cost of $75,000, and $158,609 in improvements to Millen’s wastewater treatment plant, which discharges into the Ogeechee.
“The company should have to spend more than $1 million,” said Wedincamp, whose organization plans to submit formal comments on the proposed order.
Among the groups submitting proposals for monitoring programs on the Ogeechee was an Augusta organization, the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy, which proposed a longer monitoring effort – five years or more.
The academy’s proposal, which was not selected, would have cost $764,750 and was to include the purchase and installation of six continuous monitoring stations that would provide temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen levels and other data.