Bewilderment, heartfelt concern and exasperation were among palpable sentiments Ogeechee River stakeholders expressed in a live-streamed public hearing by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division Tuesday, Nov. 17.

The agency is set to consider granting a relaxed wastewater permit for a textile mill in southeast Georgia that was at the center of the state’s largest fish kill on record in 2011.

The old King America Finishing mill in Screven County, just upstream from Chatham and Bryan counties, had a different owner at the time. It was bought by Milliken & Company in 2014, yet river pollution continues to be a problem

Nick Perez/The Current

Milliken & Co. has a record of repeatedly violating its current state operating permit by dumping nitrates and other pollutants in the river, according to records from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It has been non compliant for the past 12 quarters and has paid Georgia more than $83,000 in fines over the past three years as a result of federal Clean Water Act violations.

The draft permit was laid out in a 20-minute presentation by Audra Dickson, the division’s wastewater regulatory program manager, and Whitney Fenwick, industrial permitting unit acting manager. 

In short, the permit would allow the mill to discharge greater quantities of some pollutants while eliminating testing requirements for others such as formaldehyde. It also adds three new sampling requirements.

Tests find chemicals in fish

Damon Mullis, executive director for the Ogeechee River Keeper, spoke on behalf of the organization’s hundreds of members and supporters as well as a small group of fisherman from Effingham County.

“Failure to comply with a permit is no reason to relax it,” Mullis said. “Clearly, whatever EPA is done with their fines and enforcement actions over the past permit has failed to compel the facility to invest the necessary resources to operate under its current permit.”

Days before the hearing, the riverkeeper announced preliminary results of a fish tissue sample study that found carcinogenic, man-made chemicals called polyfluoroalkyl, or PFAs, in the fish tissue. PFAs accumulate in wildlife, plants and humans because they do not break down in the environment.

“Human health is at stake,” Mullis said, adding that he and others eat the river’s fish. “The credibility of the agency is at stake.”

Speakers: Why cut unmet requirements?

Renee Miller, from Savannah, was brief. 

“I imagined that I am sharing the Zoom room with a bunch of crazy scientists like myself and I just want to remind you that once you have these toxins in the water, people will be turning to the crazy scientists in the room to fix it,” she said. “Secondly, I understand that there are no testing requirements for things such as formaldehyde. So, I welcome you to put, you know, a microgram in your drinking water and see how you feel. It probably won’t turn out very well. So, just kind of keep that in mind.”

Don Stack, an environmental lawyer who spoke as an individual and on behalf of the riverkeepers, noted that Dickson had used the words “reduced” or “removed” no less than two dozen times in her presentation of the draft permit. He said the EPD’s explanations for removing certain testing measures were “asinine.” 

“It’s unbelievable, in light of what has occurred here, what we know to continue to be occurring now in terms of not complying with the existing permit, that the state’s responses to simply reduce relax and remove the criteria that it has to meet,” Stack said.

Kendall Harville said her children are unable to enjoy the river the way she did as a child, and it breaks her heart.

“If this company cannot meet the minimum requirements of this stringent permit, why are we lowering the minimum minimum to the detriment of the public and the people who want to enjoy the river?” she said. “It’s a precious resource that soon we’re not going to have due to companies like this and the lowering or non existence of standards. If there is no standard, create a standard.”

Donna Love and her husband co-own Loves Seafood & Steaks on the banks of the Ogeechee in Chatham County. Love called in to the hearing by phone and her voice cut in and out on occasion. She recalled the 2011 fish kill and its impact on her life and livelihood.

“EPD stands for Environmental Permitting Department versus ‘Protection.’” she said. “Once they let this go through, how are they going to protect the citizens? How are they going to protect the people that live along the Ogeechee, that fish along the Ogeechee?”

Team to review comments

Next, a team of EPD scientists and engineers will review comments, prepare responses, make any revisions they deem necessary then make a recommendation to EPD Director Richard Dunn, appointed to the position in 2016 by former Gov. Nathan Deal. 

  • Written comments should be received by the close of business Nov. 20 and may be emailed to Type “NPDES Permit Issuance – King America Finishing, Inc.” in the subject line.  

Laura Corley is an 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 requests...