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Lawmakers Require More Testing near Massive Fish Die-Off

Tue, 01/24/2012 - 5:09am
RAY HENRY, Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia should speed up its response to chemical spills and require third-party testing along areas of the Ogeechee River where an estimated 39,000 fish succumbed in a massive die-off last year, seven lawmakers wrote the state's Environmental Protection Division.

The Jan. 12 letter from Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, asked for independent pollution testing, as opposed to self-reporting by polluters. It also requested that all pollution test results be posted on the Internet. The lawmakers said they want the EPD to improve its response to future emergencies and pay Georgia Southern University to study the contaminants harming the river. They also want pollution testing of fish and other seafood taken from the river.

"I think it would give people ... reassurance if they could go to a layman's Website and see what the test results were," said Rep. Jan Tankersley, R-Brooklet, one of the lawmakers who signed the letter.

EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said the agency was working on responding to the letter from lawmakers and declined to comment further.

The department has said it may be impossible to determine exactly what caused the fish die-off. A state investigation concluded that the fish died from a bacterial infection after they were made susceptible by a number of factors, including pollution, low river flows caused by a drought and extreme summer heat.

All the dead fish were found downstream from an industrial plant operated by King America Finishing Inc., which discharges into the river. The company agreed in September to fund $1 million in watershed improvements as part of a settlement with the state. Officials said they could not conclude for sure whether chemicals emptied from the textile plant caused the bacterial outbreak.

Inspections conducted after the fish kill showed the plant was operating two production lines that pumped chemicals into the river without permits. Those production lines were shut down in June to stop chemicals such as formaldehyde, ammonia, sodium and sulfide from being discharged into the river.

The Ogeechee Riverkeeper, an environmental group, has filed a lawsuit against the state, saying that the settlement agreement was too lenient. The organization said the state could have fined the company up to $90 million.

Tankersely said she wants the plant to recycle its water, ideally eliminating the need to discharge waste into the river. She said she was not qualified to determine whether the financial settlement was reasonable.

"We could lose a real natural resource that could not be replaced by man," she said. "There's just really not enough money to make up for that incident."

Ray Henry can be reached at www.twitter.com/rhenryAP.

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