STATESBORO, Georgia, July 24, 2012 (ENS) – A county judge has handed the nonprofit conservation group Ogeechee Riverkeeper a victory in its efforts to stop a Chicago-based textile manufacturer from discharging pollutants into the Ogeechee River.
On July 19, Bulloch County Superior Court Judge John Turner overturned a consent order between the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and King America Finishing that allowed the textile company to continue polluting the river even after the chemicals it discharged had killed thousands of fish.
Judge Turner reversed the ruling of an administrative judge in Atlanta earlier this year that rejected the public’s right to comment on the issue and also rejected the legal challenge Ogeechee Riverkeeper mounted against the consent order.
The judge’s decision invalidates the consent order and sends the case back to the administrative court.
“This is an important ruling for the Ogeechee River, and the people of the state,” said attorney Hutton Brown of the nonprofit law firm GreenLaw, which represented Ogeechee Riverkeeper. “It states clearly and unequivocally that the public has a right to be heard in agency decisions affecting clean air and water.”
“The consent order was executed with no chance for involvement by the public and it was inadequate to rectify the harm that had been caused or to keep it from happening again,” said Brown.
Dianna Wedincamp of Ogeechee Riverkeeper said, “We are pleased Judge Turner realized the importance of Ogeechee Riverkeeper member testimony and that we have a right to hold the Environmental Protection Division accountable for their poor handling of the state’s historic fish kill and failure to stop the pollution from King America.”
The consent order arose out of what Wedincamp calls “one of the biggest environmental disasters in Georgia history.”
In May 2011, 38,000 dead fish were found along an 85 mile stretch of the Ogeechee River below the King America discharge pipe.
Government investigators concluded the fish kill was likely caused by a combination of unseasonably high water temperatures, drought that impeded river flows and three chemicals, ammonia, formaldehyde and hydrogen peroxide illegally discharged by King America.
Following the kill, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and King America entered into a consent order in which the company agreed to pay $1 million for environmental projects on the river.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper maintains that this order still allows the company to discharge unsafe levels of the chemicals. The environmentalists calculate that state law could levy more than $90 million in penalties against King America.
Represented pro bono by GreenLaw and by Stack and Associates, Ogeechee Riverkeeper filed a challenge to the consent order with the Office of State Administrative Hearings in Atlanta.
A judge there ruled that the public had no right to comment upon the consent order before it was finalized and that Ogeechee Riverkeeper did not have standing to challenge its provisions in court.
Ogeechee Riverkeeper appealed this ruling to Judge Turner.
Judge Turner ruled that the public should not have been excluded from such an important matter as the consent order and that “there is no dispute that [King America] was violating the terms of its … permit.”
Judge Turner wrote that Ogeechee Riverkeeper does have standing to challenge the consent order because the group has “shown a continuing harm which is being caused to the waters of the Ogeechee River … and the consent order did nothing to abate the harm and therefore allowed the injury to continue…”
“Judge Turner recognized that any backroom deal reached without the light of public participation can only continue to harm not only the river but all of us who still believe that we should have a voice in our government,” said attorney Don Stack.
“With the filing of the separate federal Clean Water Act lawsuit that we just filed yesterday in Savannah,” said Stack, “we are confident that finally both King America and EPD will be held accountable for the nearly seven years of pollution.”
“King America had over a year to address serious pollution violations following the state’s largest fish kill,” said Wedincamp, “but they didn’t. The government had years to stop the pollution, and they didn’t. We are asking the courts to do what the environmental law enforcers have failed to do, to stop the pollution of the Ogeechee River from King America Finishing.”