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Three cheers for the water warriors

Lawsuits. Lies. More stinkin’ dead fish.

After the year the Ogeechee Riverkeeper folks have had, they deserve a drink. In fact, make it a double.

Here are the facts: In May 2011, tens of thousands of dead fish bellied up in the Ogeechee River—a sick, sad day for the history books. A year later, hundreds more were found floating in the green waters. The crayfish and largemouth bass populations—once a sustainable source of food for those who live along the river—are disappearing. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this once pristine and iconic waterway is dying.

All this is happening downstream from a drainage pipe connected to the King America Finishing plant in Sylvania, Ga. The effluent pouring out of that pipe is a hideous cocktail of ammonia, formaldehyde and other chemicals that would fry off your eyebrows if you took a whiff. Yet after Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division determined that KAF had been illegally dumping waste from its stupendously poisonous fire retardant line for five years, it rapped them on the knuckles with a piddly $1million to be used for “environmental awareness” projects. (Not for clean up. Not for compensation to the river citizens who have lost their livelihood, real estate values and heritage.)

Demonstrating a brand of evil usually reserved for comic book villains or megalomaniacal South American dictators, KAF continues to deny any responsibility for the fish kills. It recently bought a full–page ad in The Statesboro Herald proclaiming its innocence (it was a “common bacterial infection,” don’tcha know?) and sinisterly reminding Bulloch County residents that 450 local jobs could be in jeopardy if those pesky environmental activists have their way.

The ecological advocates of the Riverkeeper—a small non–profit funded by its members and donations—have bravely taken on the fight to force KAF to stop discharging toxic filth into the Ogeechee. They’ve retained big brains from Green Law Firm and Stack and Associates and filed a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act as well as put forth litigation that takes the state to task for issuing a permit in July that actually grants KAF permission to spew their deadly chemicals—I’m not kidding—legally.

It’s like David and Goliath, if Goliath was invisible except for a legion of reptilian lawyers who refute he’s even picking on David in the first place.

Yet in spite of facing down this most noxious of adversaries, those Ogeechee Riverkeepers still know how to throw a party. Their annual fundraiser, Rivers Rock, definitely shook some shingles loose last Thursday at Moon River Brewing Co. and hopefully blew off a little of the steam that’s been building as KAF continues its campaign of misinformation and gleeful pollution.

Sipping pints of John Pinkerton’s sweet Tater ale, a couple hundred people perused the buffet as Swamp Cabbage served up the very best of the classic rock canon. I may have instigated a raucous sing–a–long with Soap frontman Joa Kelly and Starfish Community Garden fairy godfather Francis Allen in a fist–shaking call to activism:

“I tip my hat to a new constitution…take a bow to a new revolution…”

Though head Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp and the board are under a gag order not to discuss the lawsuits, she did tell me that the goal of all this suing is to force KAF to build a closed–loop wastewater treatment system used by other textile finishing plants.

“We want to make it so they don’t discharge in the river at all,” she said, conceding that the lawsuits—including the dozens forged by private citizens—will end up costing KAF more than if they’d just cleaned up their act in the first place.

The water warrior also helped clarify that the powers allowing the ongoing pollution of the Ogeechee sit squarely on top. Governor Nathan Deal’s corporate–bootlicking administration has pushed policies to champion business no matter what the environmental destruction (see Savannah Harbor Deepening, section “Speece cones.”) Deal’s budget eviscerations have also left the EPD with a skeletal staff that’s unable to enforce violations of the codes still in place.
“If the EPD was funded properly, Georgia pollution issues would not exist,” assures Wedincamp, a lifelong Emanuel County resident. “There are great people who work there who simply don’t have the resources to do their jobs.”

The same sentiment was heralded by Riverkeeper Board chair Ann Hartzell in a rousing speech at the mike that also admonished us to call Rep. Jack Kingston, Rep. John Barrow and the governor to let them know we won’t stand for our elected officials helping the polluters instead of protecting Georgia’s natural (and irreplaceable!) resources.

“We are not quitting!” Hartzell shouted to the crowd, who hooted and hollered back. “That water should be drinkable when it comes out that pipe. We will settle for nothing less!”

Eager to give as much I could to the cause, I stalked the silent auction to ensure I nabbed the gorgeous water-themed clutch purse from Satchel. Still, I couldn’t help but realize that no matter how much money the Ogeechee Riverkeeper raised that evening, it probably won’t be enough to buy a politician.

Swamp Cabbage sang on: “And I’ll get on my knees and pray…we don’t get fooled again…”

It seems painfully short–sighted that our national debate has devolved into “economy vs. the environment.” KAF provides a few hundred jobs, but it is negatively impacting thousands of citizens, apparently with the state of Georgia’s blessing.

The mindbendingly asinine assertion that corporate regulation limits free market prosperity is at the forefront of the upcoming election. I suggest anyone who enjoys clean water pay careful attention.

Because when I hear Mitt Romney, Gov. Deal and the rest of the “job creators” talk about deregulation and getting government out of the way of business, all I see is dead fish.