January 17, 2014

West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources can’t seem to get warnings right in regards to the coal chemical contamination that continues to leave citizens looking for a glass of fresh water. Georgians should be aware that neither our state’s Environmental Protection Division or Department of Community Health issued warnings about health risks during the largest fish kill in our state’s history on the Ogeechee River in May 2011. That was left up to the counties.

Speaking of unpermitted dumping and our rivers, U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood signed an order yesterday approving the settlement between the Ogeechee Riverkeeper and King America Finishing over the fish kill referenced above. The Savannah Morning News says, “Wood’s order ends that legal dispute while allowing King America to deny culpability.” A handful of private citizens are still pursuing the company in other legal action.

Week One and Republican legislators under the Gold Dome are considering giving Federal gun control the finger and with legislation that would provide a “hall pass” to violate laws and regs. Creative Loafing covers it.

The Peach Pundit said yesterday that a possible restoration of funds for “charity hospitals” in Georgia might be in the works. The Pundit wrote, “making sure that charity hospitals–especially in rural Georgia–don’t close due to lack of funding could complete the hat trick that lets Deal remain in the governor’s mansion for another four years.” Serving patients who require Medicaid does not make a facility a “charity hospital.” And FYI, hospitals in Atlanta, Athens, and Savannah are not rural hospitals. They may serve rural patients, but they are urban/metro providers.

Restoring the backbone of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 might happen with a bipartisan bill introduced by yesterday. And yes, it would apply to Georgia.

Tennis players and fans roasting on the barbie has re-ignited the climate debate since the polar vortex.

Disenchantment spreads to Conservatives, last call for King America permit comments

Displeasure with the state’s “protection’ of our natural resources, specifically the Ogeechee River, has found strong voices among leading Conservatives in the last few weeks. Now State Senator Buddy Carter has joined the choir.

Yesterday the Albany Journal ran a letter from Carter in which he said the EPD has “earned a vote of no confidence” from the public and from him as well.

This week the volume was turned up by the Statesboro Herald in a strongly worded editorial. The paper spared no criticism for the EPD or King America Finishing, closing with, “We believe the EPD rightfully has earned a ton of distrust for its handling of King America’s role in the 2011 fish kill. The state agency can begin to regain its credibility as a responsible steward of the environment by demonstrating the health of the Ogeechee River is more important than the sustainability of the King America plant.”

Governor Nathan Deal took his head out of the sand long enough to tell the Statesboro paper that, “We know that we don’t want anything that’s going to pollute our waterways. We don’t want anything that’s going to make our state a worse place from the standpoint of environmental degradation.”

Make our state worse from the standpoint of environmental degradation? We are competing for the bottom of the list. I am afraid to say we can’t get any worse, but with the track record in the last few years, ineptitude among state leaders seems to rise to the challenge every time.

Tuesday the Peach Pundit weighed in with this, “Given the recent history, I find it difficult to be anything but cynical about the state’s ability to protect life in and along the river. My guess is that many who are calling now for stricter oversight will soon be demanding that King America Finishing be forced to shut down.”

Wednesday, May 15 is last call for comments on KAF permit! 

Citizens can comment on the latest King America permit through today at 5:00 p.m. Email your  comments to: EPDcomments@dnr.state.ga.us, with the words “NPDES permit reissuance King America Finishing (Dover Screven County)” in the subject line.

You don’t have to make it fancy, you just need to speak up. “Deny the NPDES permit reissuance for King America Finishing in Dover, Screven County, GA”  is just fine. Make sure you get your name and contact info on the email.

Why the Georgia EPD is toothless

This week started with Mary Landers at the Savannah Morning News reporting that employees at King American Finishing (KAF) were told to drink bottled water at work for the past six months. Tests of two wells at the company’s textile and chemical plant in Screven County found unacceptable levels of cadmium and phenanthrene (known to cause cancer, cardiovascular disease and other serious health problems). An attorney for KAF told Landers in an email that Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) ordered the company to switch to bottled water.

Landers contacted EPD Director Jud Turner, who said that the EPD had not issued that requirement.

Someone isn’t telling the truth.

Both the state and the Chicago based company keep telling concerned citizens that everything is okey dokey. But it isn’t.

Last night the Statesboro Herald reported that King America now says the initial water test results were wrong. Why should we believe KAF or, for that matter, the EPD?  Both have talked in circles for two years when tens of thousands of fish died in the Ogeechee, and people ended up in the hospital after swimming in polluted water.

What did the EPD tell 200 citizens during Tuesday night’s public comment session on a proposed permit for the plant? The Savannah Morning News reports that EPD official Jane Hendricks said, “Please understand that under the law EPD has a very limited ability to deny the permit.” The paper goes on to say that Hendricks said that the special conditions that can trigger a denial don’t apply in this case.

Based on newspaper and television coverage, that didn’t quell citizen outrage. They went ahead and took the EPD and King America to task for polluting the river, setting unreasonable discharge limits, failing to respond quickly to citizen complaints, making a mess of the water and wildlife, driving down property values, and hurting businesses based on river activities like boating and fishing.

But Ms. Hendricks’ statement that the EPD can’t easily deny a permit is telling on both  EPD and state leaders. If the EPD was really in the business of proactively protecting our natural resources, they would be all over state legislators each session asking them to put some teeth in their enforcement abilities.

And if state legislators wanted the EPD to protect our water and air, wildlife, drinking water, land, and swimming holes, they’d pass some laws that would empower the EPD to do just that.

In the end, they continue to do nothing. It doesn’t seem to matter how many fish die, how many citizens end up in the hospital after swimming in polluted water, how many people continue to boil water from their wells out of fear of the poisons that may be in it, or how many small businesses are crippled due to boaters, fishermen, and families who just don’t want to chance getting sick from whatever is lurking in our rivers and streams.

It does matter to the citizens and taxpayers. And we are tired of hearing, and feeding, a toothless guard dog barking on our porch.

Streamlining protection of our natural resources could result in huge savings for taxpayers

When the Effingham County EMA stepped up and advised citizens to stay out of the Ogeechee River downstream from King America Finishing (KAF) for the second Memorial Day weekend in a row, I started mulling over a suggestion on how the Georgia Environmental Protection Division  (EPD) of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) could save taxpayers significant money and streamline protection of our natural resources. On the heels of yet another advisory issued this week due to blistered catfish downstream from KAF, I think the time is ripe for my suggestion.

Blistered catfish in the Ogeechee River, July 4, 2012
(photo by Effingham County EMA)

Based on the fact that the EPD doesn’t find unpermitted dumping when it does site inspections (the dumping went on for five years at KAF), negotiates paltry consent agreements, and then issues a draft permit which essentially says, “Go ahead and pollute but this time you will have a permit” I suggest that at the least the water program be closed except for one staff person.

My guess is that with the willingness to issue lax permits to repeat polluters, one staffer could readily handle the issuing of permits because it seems issuing permits to dump chemicals and wastes into our rivers and streams is what the EPD thinks it is supposed to do. A small desk with a large “PERMIT APPROVED” stamp is all they would need.

With all the chatter in Georgia about smaller government, the elimination of at least the water program in the EPD could not only serve as a savings to taxpayers, but could also be used for economic development. I can see the advertising now, “Bring your business to Georgia. No restrictions or penalties on polluters! Hurry down for prime river access sites!”

The General Assembly could then take some of those savings on department operations and direct it toward the county agencies who do respond promptly to protect the health of all those who love to fish, swim, and boat in Georgia’s rivers.

Effingham County’s EMA Director, Ed Myrick is a real bargain. Following the second fish kill and two tropical storms in May, Myrick told me in a phone conversation that he is the first full-time EMA Director they have had, and he is the only person on staff.

Myrick isn’t afraid to do whatever it takes to protect the citizens in Effingham County. He told the Atlanta Journal Constitution what we already know, “it is apparent that the pollutants in the Ogeechee River are continuing to be an ongoing problem and may always be until the Northern portions of the river are reclassified. I sympathize with the businesses that depend on the Ogeechee River for income, but we must look after the health and safety of everyone involved.”

One person speaking up when an entire state agency won’t. Because it is the right thing to do.
Riverkeeper suit scheduled in Superior Court Monday, July 9.

 The Ogeechee Riverkeeper (ORK) filed a suit against the EPD when an administrative judge in Atlanta ruled that citizens who live on the river, fish and swim in it, rely on it for their livelihood, or simply enjoy watching the wildlife, have no standing in court. The legal challenge will be heard this Monday, July 9 at 2:00 p.m. in Superior Court in Statesboro.  in Judge Turner’s Courtroom, Judicial Annex Building, 20 Siebald St. Statesboro, Georgia. This is not an opportunity to comment or speak, but rather to support the Riverkeeper and demonstrate your concern by being there. Please remember to adhere to proper courtroom attire and conduct. 

 

From where I stand

Standing-The legally protectible stake or interest that an individual has in a dispute that entitles him to bring the controversy before the court to obtain judicial relief.

Lois Oakley, an administrative law judge presiding over a courtroom in Atlanta, over 200 miles from the Ogeechee River in Eastern Georgia, told citizens living on the river that they have no standing to bring a case concerning the state’s largest fish kill in history. Huh? They live on the river and they have no protectible stake or interest in the river? If they don’t, then who does?

Never mind that the state’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) inspected King America Finishing and failed, over the course of five years, to find unpermitted dumping. Never mind that the state then tucked its tail between its legs, and instead of levying a penalty that could have reached $91M, it signed off on a consent agreement with King Finishing for $1M. And, to add insult to injury, the agreement doesn’t even require that the paltry $1M be spent directly on protecting the Ogeechee.

As stunning as the judge’s ruling is, what is more stunning is the absolute failure of the state to regulate dumping in the river. Children have been swimming in these cast-off chemicals. Taxpaying citizens have eaten fish soaked in the stuff. And until the dumping got so out of hand that at least 38,000 fish, along with alligators and other wildlife died, the EPD didn’t even know it was going on.

So, if the people who live on the river, depend on the river for their livelihood, love paddling and fishing in it, or have invested in the river for generations (my family has owned a farm on the river since 1789), don’t have standing, then who does?

The Ogeechee fish kill is a heartbreaking example of the state’s lack of interest in protecting our natural resources and wildlife. More importantly, it is a slap on the face to all taxpayers, especially those of us who consider the Ogeechee to be “our” river,  to watch the state continue to discount those of use who stand on its banks.

more information:
Ogeechee Riverkeeper
GreenLaw
Don Stack