New year, better water

Court settlement firms up commitment for a cleaner area river

Georgians are getting the gift of cleaner water this holiday season as we head into 2014.

That’s because of the recent settlement of a complicated pollution case that began in May 2011, when 38,000 fish died along the Ogeechee River.

First and foremost, the site of one of the state’s worst fish kills will now rank among the most protected and closely watched waterways in the South, and the Screven County textile plant linked to the incident will remain open, preserving 500 important jobs.

Under a consent order labeled “unprecedented” by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, the company – King America Finishing – agreed to finance $1.3 million in supplemental environmental projects designed to preserve and improve water quality.

The agreement replaces and strengthens an earlier order that was successfully challenged by Ogeechee Riverkeeper as inadequate. The group also filed suit against King America Finishing over alleged violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act.

Although regulators concluded a bacterial infection caused the fish kill, they also found the plant failed to obtain permits for a new fire retardant process it installed years earlier – which created an ongoing, illegal discharge of wastewater into the river.

Now, under agreements announced jointly by King America, EPD and Ogeechee Riverkeeper, the plant has a new permit to continue operations, with tighter water quality restrictions.

Under terms of the order, the environmental monitoring projects will be overseen and conducted by Georgia Southern University and the Augusta-based Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy, which has developed its own unique expertise in tracking the impacts of man on natural rivers and streams.

Last, but by no means least, King America agreed to pay Ogeechee Riverkeeper $2.5 million – a donation of sorts – that will enabled the organization to expand and maintain its stewardship over one of the state’s most important blackwater ecosystems.

The Riverkeeper group intends to use those funds to collect more comprehensive data on the Ogeechee than ever before – and has pledged to continue to serve as a watchdog for the health of the watershed.

As a postscript to this happy ending to a story that could have gone in many different directions, it is worth noting that Ogeechee Riverkeeper is one of such riverkeeper groups in the state that are gradually assuming a greater watchdog role over water quality issues.

Georgia’s EPD, like many government agencies, has endured severe budget and personnel cuts, with responsibilities that seem to continue to expand. In 2008, EPD had 1,100 workers, but that figure had fallen to just 850 last year.

Could those reductions make it more difficult to regulate industrial pollution and enforce the provisions of our nation’s Clean Water Act? It’s hard to say, but it never hurts to have someone else watching.

This part of Georgia has a deserved reputation as a desired destination for outdoor enthusiasts. The settlement of this fish kill case sends a clear, much-needed message that all sides in this incident are reaffirming a commitment to preserving a healthy environment.

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