The Ogeechee River spans 245 miles from its headwaters 50 miles west of Augusta and just south of Interstate 20. Its flow meanders west of the Savannah River toward the coast, joining the Canoochee River before emptying into Ossabaw Sound, then to the Atlantic Ocean. (Ogeechee Riverkeeper)

A textile mill in southeast Georgia with a record of repeatedly violating its state operating permit by dumping nitrates and other pollutants in the Ogeechee River is asking the state to relax its operating procedures for wastewater.

The mill’s owner, Milliken & Company, has paid Georgia more than $83,000 in fines over the past three years as a result of violating standards set by the Federal Clean Water Act, according to records from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The company has been non compliant for the past 12 quarters

Even so, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division is considering the company’s request to approve a draft permit for its Longleaf Mill in Screven County, which borders the South Carolina state line. The permit, published in late September, would increase limits on pollutant discharge into the river and relax water quality monitoring. 

Asked why the company is requesting the new permit, Milliken spokeswoman Betsy Neely Sikma said, “we requested the permit be updated to reflect the wastewater the facility produces today.”

The company has improved processes at the plant and changed some of the chemicals produced there since the last permit was granted to the plant while it was run by a different owner, Sikma said. Some of the parameters in the original permit were unnecessary and resulted in some of the company’s violations, she said.

Nick Perez/The Current

“With the exception of a few isolated and unrepeated violations, the remaining violations relate to fecal coliform bacteria,” Sikma said in an email, adding that under a new operating permit Milliken will still be responsible for testing river water.

Milliken’s Longleaf plant employs about 250 people and produces flame-resistant fabric.

Georgia EPD has authority to enforce federal laws, impose fines for noncompliance and issue National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits. The permits allow public and private facilities to discharge a specified amount of a pollutant into a receiving water under certain conditions.

Georgia EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said the draft permit is being considered because it “has been developed in accordance with the applicable rules and regulations protecting water quality.”

If approved as is, the permit would allow the mill to discharge greater quantities of some pollutants while eliminating testing requirements for others such as Formaldehyde and THCP, a precursor chemical for fire-retardant materials. The draft permit also adds three new sampling requirements.

Donald D.J. Stack, an environmental lawyer who helps represent the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, a Savannah-based environmental group, said the draft permit benefits Milliken but leaves fewer protections in place for the already vulnerable river.

“Black water rivers like the Ogeechee, they’re sensitive,” Stack said. “It doesn’t take a whole lot to disrupt them.”  

The Ogeechee River spans 245 miles long on its flow to Coastal Georgia. Its headwaters are about 50 miles west of Augusta, just south of Interstate 20. Its path meanders west of the Savannah River toward the coast, joining the Canoochee River north of Richmond Hill before emptying into Ossabaw Sound south of Fort McAllister, about 16 miles south of Savannah. It forms the border between Chatham and Bryan counties.

The mill is located near Jackson Branch, a stream that flows into the Ogeechee River.

In May 2011, when it was called King America Finishing plant and owned by Chicago-based Westex Inc., the mill was at the center of one of the state’s largest fish kills on record. More than 38,000 fish died along a 75-mile stretch of blackwater downstream from the discharge pipes at the plant, known then as King America Finishing mill. 

An investigation by Georgia’s EPD determined the cause of the mass fish deaths was likely a bacterial infection. It also discovered during the probe that the mill had been illegally discharging an untold amount of flame-resistant chemicals into the river for years, Savannah Morning News reported.

The Ogeechee Riverkeeper sued King America Finishing and Westex Inc. under the federal Clean Water Act. The settlement – which included payouts to dozens of individuals, the riverkeeper and local governments – called for a more strict permit including closer monitoring, lowered pollution limits and more sampling. 

In response, the state EPD issued a restrictive wastewater permit to King America Finishing meant to curtail pollution by implementing new water testing requirements and pollution limits. 

When Milliken bought the mill in 2014, it started operating under the same stringent permit, Sikma said.

Milliken renamed the mill Longleaf after the 2014 buyout. It installed a $700,000 septic tank and filters for its discharge pipes, among $5 million in improvements made to reduce the facility’s environmental impact, Sikma said in an email to The Current.

The period for public comment ends Nov. 20. Then, a team of EPD scientists and engineers review comments, respond and revise the draft permit as needed. The team will take its recommendations to Richard E. Dunn, director of the Georgia EPD, who will make the final call, Chambers said.

Photo from the 2011 fish kill that spanned more than 75 miles of the Ogeechee River into Coastal Georgia. (Ogeechee Riverkeeper)

Toxicity history

Toxicity and pollution issues at the mill date back well before the 2011 fish kill. 

The mill first opened in the mid-1960s, according to the Screven County Development Authority. Spartan International Inc., based in Spartanburg, South Carolina, owned it for decades up until 200, when the company filed for bankruptcy. Westex Inc. bought it later that year.

In 1987, it ranked 78th on the National Wildlife Federation’s “Toxic 500,” list of the country’s top industrial polluters, according to news archives.

Stack, the environmental lawyer, said blackwater rivers in 2020 are analogous to elderly people in the era of COVID-19 in that a certain amount of pollutants discharged into a larger, faster flowing river might not have much impact but could be lethal to like the Ogeechee.

Blackwater rivers wind through forests, swamps and wetlands. Its darker water is more acidic than other rivers because it is stained with the tannins of decaying vegetation, according to Ogeechee Riverkeeper’s website

The most concerning issue for environmentalists is that little is known about the underlying toxicity problem at the mill, Stack said.

“Our concern is you still got the same conditions that led to your fish kill 10 years ago,” he said. “So, it’s foolish to think you might not have the same results.”

“Our concern is you still got the same conditions that led to your fish kill 10 years ago…So, it’s foolish to think you might not have the same results.”

DONALD D. J. STACK

Provisions in the draft permit would ultimately make it easier for the company to avoid the fines that come with noncompliance, Stack said. 

“Monetary components shouldn’t be the hammer,” Stack said. “You should have a real disincentive. Otherwise, companies just literally just make that a cost of doing business.”

The Milliken family ranked #67 Forbe’s list of the top 200 “America’s Richest Families” in 2015, when its net worth was about $4.4 billion. The family company is among the world’s largest privately-owned textile manufacturers. It has operations in Europe and Asia.

Sikma said the current permit under which Milliken operates is among the most stringent issued by the state and the proposed changes “are reasonable adjustments based on valid technical requirements that reflect current conditions.”

The public is invited to review the draft permit and submit comments for consideration. A virtual public hearing via Zoom is set for 7 p.m. Nov. 17. To join by phone, call 877-853-5247 and enter meeting ID 923 6501 1313. Note that if you choose to participate by phone, your number may be visible to other meeting attendees.

Written comments should be received by the close of business Nov. 20. Comments may be emailed to epdcomments@dnr.ga.gov. Please type “NPDES Permit Issuance – King America Finishing, Inc.” in the subject line.  Comments may also be mailed to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, 2 MLK Jr. Drive, Suite 1152E, Atlanta, GA 30334. For additional information, email or call Whitney Fenwick, Wastewater Regulatory Program, at 404-656-2795 or e-mail whitney.fenwick@dnr.ga.gov.

Laura Corley is home-brewed investigative reporter who has covered public safety and government and education in her home state of Georgia since 2014. At The (Macon) Telegraph, Laura used open records...