Permit could set less water testing at Ogeechee River plant

SYLVANIA, Ga. (AP) — Environmentalists are protesting a proposal to loosen testing requirements for water discharged from a Georgia textile plant.

The Savannah Morning News reports that Georgia's Environmental Protection Division has proposed less stringent testing for Milliken & Co.'s Longleaf Plant near Sylvania.

The plant, formerly known as King America Finishing, makes fire retardant fabric. The Screven County Development Authority said in 2018 that the plant had about 400 employees. It discharges waste into the Ogeechee River.

Regulators discovered in 2011 that the plant had been dumping wastewater into the Ogeechee for years without a permit. Many property owners blamed the plant when 38,000 fish turned up dead in the Ogeechee 75 miles below the plant in 2011. But the state ultimately determined the plant wasn't responsible for the state's largest fish kill.

The state initially fined King America $1 million and allowed it to resume operations. But environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in and won stricter limits. The company agreed to pay $1.3 million to the state, $2.5 million to Ogeechee Riverkeeper and spend $2.5 million on upgrades, for a total of $6.8 million.

But that permit has since expired and the state is proposing to issue a less-strict permit to Milliken, the South Carolina company that bought the plant in 2014.

“The facility still struggles with violations and operating within the permit,” said Ogeechee Riverkeeper Damon Mullis. “Despite that, the EPD is looking at loosening it up.”

The plant failed to comply with the Clean Water Act in all of the last 12 quarters, paying $354,500 in fines since 2015, according to Environmental Protection Division records.

Milliken officials did not respond to two requests for comment about the draft permit.

Audra Dickson, EPD’s wastewater regulatory program manager, said the draft permit was written in accordance with the applicable regulations governing the facility’s discharge.

“Milliken is required to comply with the permit at all times. EPD has and will continue to take the appropriate enforcement actions if Milliken violates the permit,” she wrote in an email.

The Environmental Protection Division is accepting public comments through Nov. 20 and plans a virtual public hearing on Nov. 17.

Mullis faults the new permit for stopping testing for some chemicals, reducing the frequency of other testing and tying some discharge limits to how much cloth is produced.

“The permit should be based on, you know, on protecting the river, not on any production levels, or what they want to do,” Mullis said.

Ogeechee Riverkeeper also faults the state for failing to require a fish tissue study looking for called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, chemicals used in fire retardants that accumulate in fish and are suspected of causing cancer in people.

The tissue study was supposed to be part of the settlement of the King America litigation. But in 2014, Milliken submitted documentation to EPD to show it was not discharging PFAS. Thus no fish sampling was ever done.

But Mullis said Milliken’s study was flawed. He said Ogeechee Riverkeeper has found PFAS in the river and believes Milliken improperly looked for solids instead of liquids and set a detection limit that was too high.

“The study should’ve been done,” Mullis said. “We’re just asking that it be done.”