It’s been half a decade since an estimated 38,000 fish were discovered dead in a 70-mile stretch of the Ogeechee River, all below the discharge pipe of a Screven County textile processing plant. As regulators scrambled to pinpoint the cause of the kill, they warned against swimming in the blackwater river over the 2011 Memorial Day holiday.
Five years later, those worries have faded.
It took trepidation, investigation, litigation and rain – lots of rain – but the waterway seems to be recovering.
“I see it bouncing back,” said Ogeechee Riverkeeper Emily Markesteyn.
Fish and anglers are plentiful in the Ogeechee again.
“The long and short of it is we live and die by the flow,” said Tim Barrett, a regional fisheries supervisor at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “We’ve had three years of very wet weather and the fish have responded accordingly. They’re doing really well. There’s lots of good quality red breast, blue gill and largemouth bass.”
Paddlers are back, too. This spring the river saw a 12-mile-long Ogeechee trip for 42 paddlers sponsored by the Georgia Conservancy. Last year, the river was chosen for the annual kayaking and canoeing trip called Paddle Georgia.
“All those people that paddled are repeat paddlers for the Georgia River Network,” Markesteyn said. “They saw a good stretch of the river. It started at Rocky Ford and went down to Kings Ferry. Everybody was complimentary about how clean it was, beautiful and pristine. They knew about the lawsuit and the fish kill. They’ve seen other rivers around the state. I felt good about that.”
Like Barrett, she knows the rain has helped. But she also points to greater restrictions on discharge and transparency about what’s going into the river.
“From the discharge side of things, we didn’t know before what was going in, and now we do,” she said.
In 2011, regulators blamed a bacterial infection for the fish kill, but during the investigation the Georgia Environmental Protection Division also determined that King America Finishing had been illegally discharging waste from its fire retardant processing operation for five years. The state fined the textile processor $1.3 million, directing that it fund environmental research and projects along the river. It also issued what it termed the “most stringent” permit in the state.
Like landowners along the river, many of whom had fought against allowing any pollution discharge into the river, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper wasn’t satisfied with the state’s actions. The nonprofit sued King America, asserting that it violated the federal Clean Water Act. The company settled for $2.5 million and agreed to even greater restrictions on its discharge permit.
Private landowners along the blackwater river also sued King America, settling for undisclosed payments.
Connie Shreve is one of those landowners. A master naturalist, she operates Ogeechee Outpost, where she rents canoes and kayaks and runs summer camps for kids. The fish kill was an emotional and financial disaster for Shreve, who opened her Morgan’s Bridge location in 1995. She estimates it cost her at least $50,000 worth of business, including several years when paddlers and campers stayed away. Business has picked up, but she still feels strongly that no discharge is good discharge.
“I think this river from start to finish should be protected,” she said on a walk at the Ogeechee Canal past wetlands blooming with fragrant “lizard tails,” a native plant. “There should be no discharge.”
The textile facility, which employs about 400 people, still produces fire-retardant fabric, though it now has new owners. In 2014, the Chicago-based owners, Westex, sold it to Spartanburg, S.C.-based Milliken and Co. Milliken renamed the Screven plant Longleaf, but most people still call it by its old name.
With the stricter permit in place, Milliken faced a $150,000 fine in early 2015 for fecal coliform and toxicity. The company spent millions on improving its treatment systems, including the installation of a septic tank. The EPD remains focused on the facility, said Bruce Foisy, the division’s district manager.
“They’re in compliance,” he said. “Since the initial consent order, they’ve done significant modification to their treatment system. We have had the second order, and with that I think there’s a significant improvement over what was there previously. I think it’s stringent.”
After an initial delay, a three-year study of the river by Georgia Southern University is entering its second year. In addition to five continuous monitoring stations above and below Milliken’s plant, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper runs water-quality testing sites at the U.S. 301 and Georgia 24 bridges, Dasher’s Landing, Morgan’s Bridge and Kings Ferry. So far, its monitors show a normal, healthy river system and satisfactory fish populations.
“We are satisfied that this beautiful, pristine river has recovered from the pollutants dumped in it without the proper permit or testing. However, our work is not done,” Markesteyn said. “We’re as dedicated as ever to reviewing, monitoring and testing the Ogeechee and proactively protecting what is important to this region.”