Georgia regulators have withdrawn the pollution permit issued in August to King America Finishing and ordered the company to analyze the effect of its discharge on the Ogeechee River.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division also issued a new agreement with the company stipulating the $1 million-worth of river-related projects the textile processor will fund.
EPD is allowing the company to continue operating under the discharge requirements already in place as the new permit is developed.
In May 2011, the Ogeechee was the site of the largest fish kill in state history when 38,000 fish died; all were discovered below the discharge pipe for Screven County’s King America Finishing. Subsequent probes uncovered a fire retardant processing line for which King America Finishing had not obtained the proper pollution permit.
‘Ignored’ portion of Clean Water Act
Through attorney Lee DeHihns III, King America Finishing refused to comment on the permit or consent order, citing pending litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia.
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper pushed for the new study, called an anti-degradation analysis, in its appeal of the permit. A requirement of the federal Clean Water Act, the analysis allows a river’s water quality to decline only when it’s unavoidable to allow important economic or social development.
EPD disagreed with the need for the study, but withdrew the permit to avoid further delays in issuing a final permit, said EPD assistant director Jim Ussery. A hearing on the permit had been scheduled for mid-November but is now canceled.
Ussery said the anti-degradation analysis was unnecessary because the permit issued in August, which EPD has termed the strictest in the state, imposed greater limits on the facility than had previously been in place.
“It’s actually decreasing pollutant loading rather than increasing pollutant loading,” he said.
Environmental consultant Barry Sulkin, who was preparing to testify for the Ogeechee Riverkeeper at the now-canceled November hearing, said that Georgia, like many states, does not fully comply with the Clean Water Act. The anti-degradation portion of the act has been “largely ignored,” he said.
“They’ve apparently misunderstood the concept,” said Sulkin, who served as chief of enforcement and compliance for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. “They’re saying it’s because we’re not letting them do as much bad stuff as we allowed in the last one, but that doesn’t mean they did it correctly the last time either.”
Making sure the discharge doesn’t degrade the Ogeechee is fundamental to the permitting process, said Don Stack, a Savannah attorney for the Riverkeeper.
“When you build a house, if you don’t lay the foundation correctly the house can’t stand up,” Stack said. “EPD didn’t lay the concrete properly.”
King America Finishing has 90 days to complete its plan after which the new permit will be released for public comment, Ussery said.
Projects specified in new order
On Tuesday, the EPD also issued a new consent order that compels King America Finishing to pay for $1 million in environmental projects on the Ogeechee. Bulloch County Superior Court Judge John Turner invalidated the previous consent order in July. It had specified the same $1 million price tag, but not what projects would be covered.
The new consent order is intended to allow the company to proceed with environmental improvement projects despite ongoing lawsuits, according to the EPD.
The new order specifies the following projects:
• Third-party monitoring of the facility’s discharge for a duration of 18 months at a cost of $75,000.
• Improvements to the city of Millen wastewater treatment plant to be completed in 12 months at a cost of $158,609. The facility discharges to the Ogeechee River.
• The Ogeechee River Research Proposal involves Georgia Southern University in establishing a nature center to study the ecology of the Ogeechee River. This must be completed in 36 months at a cost of $766,391.
Ussery rejected the widespread criticism the $1 million sum constituted a slap on the wrist for King America Finishing.
“In setting that we looked at other penalties nationwide,” he said. “One million dollars is a big penalty. It’s the third-largest ever collected in state for an environmental violation and that includes air, water and land.”
Attorneys for the Ogeechee Riverkeeper would not comment on the newly proposed order, saying they needed to study it more closely.
They have 30 days, as does the general public, to submit comments on the order. The lack of a public comment period on the previous order was another reason the Riverkeeper had opposed it.