The Ogeechee River in southeast Georgia is still recovering from the biggest fish kill in Georgia history. This week, the state released thousands of fish to help restore the river. When the kill happened in May, the state Environmental Protection Division launched an investigation. It found a textile company had been illegally polluting the river since 2006. The people living along the Ogeechee are outraged.
A whole season has come and gone since 54 year-old Tommy Pope came home one day, in May, to the stench of dead fish. He leans back in a rocking chair on the back porch of his bungalow which stands on stilts. His blue eyes are tired from worry, looking onto a stretch of the Ogeechee he’s called home for 27 years.
“I had been on vacation and came back and there were dead fish in front of my dock, probably 15 or 20. And my neighbors told me they’d cleaned my dock off three times already and probably got anywhere from 130 to 150 dead fish away from my dock,” says Pope.
More than 38,000 fish died then. Pope says the tea-colored river used to be a sanctuary for wildlife. But now you can see little more than algae. It covers the water like a green carpet.
“There were plenty of birds. Usually you have water birds wading out there. You hardly see them any more. And now the turtles -- a lot of turtles are gone. All the water bugs are gone. I‘ve seen one snake since the fish kill and there are usually brown water snakes in every other tree and they’re not there anymore. There’s a reason all that is disappearing and I got a pretty good idea of what it is,” says Pope.
On the river bank white stripes ring the roots of enormous cypress trees showing where the water has receded in the drought. Pope says he first saw the rings last spring and he says when all the fish were dying white residue coated the shores. Pope believes it’s chemicals from the textile plant twenty miles upstream, King America Finishing Company.
A state Environmental Protection Division investigation into the company found it had been dumping pollutants it wasn’t permitted for since 2006. It’s a flame retardant used in making textiles. The company dumps into the river through a pipe. Even though the EPD inspected the site several times in the past five years, investigators never the caught the problem.
King America says it didn’t know it was in violation. Its lawyer Lee Dehihns says the company told the EPD about new lines when it renewed its air permit but did not mention the new discharges into the water.
DEHIHNS: We didn’t directly notify them in writing of a change in water permit,but they inspected the facility in the same year the flame retardant lines were in effect and the inspection report from the state shows a clear indication that the folks inspecting the facility knew precisely what we were doing.
STIERS: Does the report indicate they saw the new lines?
STIERS: Would they have knowledge .. I mean just looking at it ... that there was a discharge into the river?
DEHIHNS: Unless they had their eyes closed, they should be aware of that, yes.
“They should have been caught without a doubt,” says Jim Ussery, Assistant Director of the EPD. He says his agency wasn’t aware of the new discharge. “You have to understand this is a large chemical plant and in a large chemical plant there are pipes going in lots of different areas and it’s hard to trace where the discharge goes."
In September, King America and the EPD negotiated what’s called a consent order agreement. In it, the company doesn’t admit fault over what happened to the river, and the EPD doesn’t blame the company. King America has to upgrade its waste water treatment facilities and do $1 million worth of environmental work on the river.
But that doesn’t satisfy some who depend on the river for their livelihood. At the Hendrix Sports bait and tackle shop on highway 301 in Statesboro, the neon sign says “Open”, but this morning the parking lot is empty.
Jimmy Hendrix has owned the shop 35 years. He has his white sleeves rolled up but there’s little work to do. He says the whole back wall covered with hooks and lures for river fishing hasn’t been touched in months.
“I don't have any business. I mean, very little. I mean my business has gone from 1,000 (to) 1,200 a day to 250 to 300 dollars a day,” says Hendrix. "That’s how my business is.”
A few customers dart in and out of the store. They're fishing private ponds or the Ogeechee upriver from the plant.
Cashier Bobby Bailey stands behind the register in his blue jeans and white Michelin cap ringing them up. The large tubs of crickets and minnows beside him aren’t fully stocked. He says they keep only a fourth of the bait they used to. His hours have been cut too.
“Me and my co-worker, we're concerned, you know, that my employer has made the remark that we might close Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and so that would further cut our hours back,” Bailey says. The part-time job and a Social Security check are his only sources of income. “We’re just taking it one day at a time.”
“I’d like to see them quit dumping in the river completely and make them clean the river up and then have it restocked like it's supposed to be," says Jimmy Hendrix. "And get our river back like its supposed to be, you know." Hendrix hopes the river can recover soon enough for his shop to survive. But that could take years.
Steven Vives heads the biology department at Georgia Southern University. Vives says, “If recovery is that people are catching sizable fish again and, you know, even if you’re stocking fish they have to grow so I think we’re talking 3 to five years minimum.” Vives says $1 million won’t go far to help replenish the river. The company has asked him to help create a list of projects. He says the most important thing is to make sure the river is healthy enough to sustain life and that requires a lot of study.
What compounds the problem is the river is at its lowest levels in recorded history because of the drought.
Meanwhile, King America Finishing is still discharging chemicals into the river. The EPD says the company is decanting off the toxic substance ammonia, but environmental lawyer Hutton Brown says they’re still discharging substances they’re not permitted for. He represents the Ogeechee Riverkeeper who is considering suing the company.
“They are discharging formaldehyde. EPD lets them do that,” says Hutton. “They’ve let them reopen that line and my point is that you can’t just allow that with the consent order. I think it’s a problem and we’re looking into whether it’s illegal.”
The company is currently renewing its permit to include the discharges. But people on the river don’t trust the company or the EPD, so state lawmakers including Sen. Jack Hill (R-Reidsville) are insisting an independent party monitor what comes out of the company’s pipe.
There is also a class action lawsuit against the company for alleged damages to citizens.
But Tommy Pope and others who live along the rivers’ edge say they just want their river back.
“Money is not going to replace anything," says Pope. "We’ve lost a whole summer and the way it’s looking we’re going to lose a whole river forever if things don’t change.”