It was described by many who live around here as the worst environmental disaster they’d ever seen. In May of 2011, 38,000 dead fish were discovered along a 70 mile stretch of the Ogeechee River. “And we remember all of those dead fish and being concerned about what’s going on and if the river will ever bounce back or if we’ll ever be able to use the river again,” says Emily Markestyn who is the current Ogeechee Riverkeeper.
Back in 2011, Dianna Wedincamp was the Riverkeeper and in July (a full two months after the big fish kill had been discovered on the river) she and others discovered a blue liquid oozing out of the discharge pipe of what was then King America Finishing, a textile plant located in Screven County.
For many in the community, there hadn’t been much doubt that the plant’s discharge was responsible for the fish kill. The discovery of the blue liquid just increased concerns and anger toward those who operated the facility and also toward the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD). Many, including Wedincamp, said the EPD had fallen down on the job. Ultimately, it was discovered that King America Finishing had been discharging certain chemicals without a permit. That discovery only increased skepticism especially since the EPD was presiding over public hearings not only to quell the public’s safety concerns but later to talk about a new permit for the plant. “We don’t accept anything EPD says and now we know that they ‘don’t know’ what’s good for our river,” Wedincamp told us a few months later.
As the months went by, the EPD said officially the fish kill could “not be blamed” on the plant because the fish had died of a bacteria after being stressed. Community members said it seemed to be a “no brainer” that the fish were stressed because of low water conditions coupled with the chemicals from the discharge, chemicals again that were not allowed under the company’s permit.
Ultimately, King America Finishing paid a fine of $1,000,000 to the state and several million in a settlement to the Riverkeeper. And a new and more stringent permit was issued by the state which called for increased testing of the water and monitoring by the state as well as the Riverkeeper. “We shouldn’t have had to do this,” said Riverkeeper attorney Don Stack at the time.
Emily Markestyn who has been the Riverkeeper for several years now says looking back, it is a surprise that things are basically this good. “And we are seeing a healthy, natural, balanced ecosystem right now,” she says. “I’m actually really happy about how far we’ve come.”
Markestyn says the fish population seems to be replenished. “Oh yes, the numbers of fish are coming back, the different species of fish are there. So the fisherman are definitely able to catch what they used to before.”
Markestyn says the state’s EPD “certainly got a lot of grief over that fill kill but they were working with a limited budget and resources. ”
She says since 2011, that environmentalists and community members with the help of the EDP have been able to get passage of a new law that requires timely responses on emergency spills. “So now EPD should have the resources to communicate that and and to research to clean it up,” she told me.
In terms of that bill, she commends citizens for keeping up the pressure which ultimately help get a stricter permit. “It was a lot of hard work,” she says. “And I really thank the citizens for being vigilant on what was going on and not taking no for an answer. It helped us achieve what we wanted and stop the pollution and clean up the river.”
In terms of a discharge permit, Markestyn says “there are a lot more permit requirements such as monitoring and testing and so we are constantly looking at all of that data. And we talk to DNR about the fish populations and they are out there testing the fish.”
“Unfortunately, the fish kill had to happen for us to have a dialog with that plant,” says Markestyn.
But she says ultimately what came out of all of it was a better community partner. In 2014 the plant was sold to a company named Milliken. “They are a South Carolina company known for their environmental stewardship which is good and positive,” said Markestyn.
I meet several people from Milliken at the Streven County facility which the company purchased in 2014. Courtney Edwards tells me the textile company, one of the few left operating in the U.S. has always been civic minded. “Milliken has been an environmental steward for our entire 150 year history,” she says. “We actually had one of the first recycling policies in the country in 1900 and that was before many other companies were recycling and thinking about the environment. So these kinds of processes are the core of Milliken values and it’s something that we practice in all of our other manufacturing facilities as well.”
When Milliken arrived on scene, it assumed a strict discharge permit and Edwards says the company has had no issues meeting the requirements. She indicates the company follows a series of steps to process and clean the water used in the plant as part of the manufacturing process. And she says the company does two extra steps just to “ensure that everything is bullet proof and the water is as clean as we can get it before we discharge it back into the river.”
“We’ve put about $3,000,000 into this facility to make sure the water in the river is the right water for the community. We’re a dyeing and finishing plant, we make work wear fabrics and one fabric I think we’re especially proud of is our flame resistant fabric.”
It was the chemicals and materials used for that flame resistant line at King America that caused the controversy back in 2011. But Edwards says Milliken is a different company. “And I’m not sure what happened when King America was here but we’ve been working really hard to make sure all our processes are right,” she told me.
Then Edwards shows me every step Milliken takes to turn that used plant water into something that’s allowed to be put back into the river, starting with Equalization basins where literally tens of thousands of gallons of water cleaned. “We’re testing it, we’re neutralizing the PH and then we’re going to take it to the next step in the process where we continue to clean it,” she says.
The water can remain in those basis for up to a week before going to that second step which is a process that uses bugs to clean it naturally. (Yes, bugs and this must be seen to be believed.) “So in this basin, it looks dirty but it’s actually not, there’s actually lots of tiny bugs in the water that are cleaning it naturally. This step usually takes one to three days,” she told me.
After that step, water goes through clarifiers and at this point I see the treated water which looks pretty clear to me at least as a lay person. Edwards says some plants might discharge the water at this point but they have added two extra filtration processes, including a “carbon clarification process which is the extra step in their filtration.”
“We actually go through these two other filtration processes make sure the water is really as clean as we can get it before it’s put back in the river,” says Edwards.
Edwards also tells me that they do dozens of tests every day. “We’re testing all the time, we do dozens of tests per day, we test the water in the plant, we test the water in these different basins, we’re testing above the output in the river, below in the river. We work very closely with Ogeechee Riverkeeper, we communicate openly and we do side by side testing. We do testing for the permit and some experimental testing with her.”
The sharing of information is something many around here also never thought they’d hear from this facility, especially the Riverkeeper. But Markestyn says Milliken has offered a different experience than what locals had with King America. “They have been open and transparent with us. We review all of their data.” Markestyn told me. “Milliken has been forthcoming with all of their upgrades and what’s going on at the plant. We regularly talk to them so I’m comfortable with the relationship that we have and it should be like that for everybody.”
Edwards says the company believes that industry truly has to co-exist with the environment. “There are not very many textile companies that are still operating in the United States and there certainly are not many that follow the same kind of strict standards and procedures across all of the processes that we do. So we hope that we can set an example,” she told us.
Edwards encourages local citizens to engage with them through Facebook and Twitter saying “we want to be transparent. We employ 300 people here and want to be considered part of the community including those who use the river.”
And while Markestyn is encouraged saying the difference between their relationship with Milliken and the former owners is “night and day”, she also says problems can arise.
“So I’m always being proactive and hopefully we can consistently have those dialogs with other companies and industry and agriculture and foresters,” says Markestyn. “Because like I said everyone’s using the river on some level. And if we just keep that open communication I think we can prevent a lot of catastrophes.”