Riverkeepers question whether EPD's response was adequate in recent fish kills

By: Chad Mills Email
By: Chad Mills Email

News 12 at 11 o'clock / Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011

SAVANNAH RIVER, Ga. -- It was last Saturday night when thousands of fish started washing up in Brier Creek near the Richmond/Burke County line. The Environmental Protection Division did not issue any advisories for swimming nor for eating the fish.

One week later, there's still no answer as to what killed fish in the tributary of the Savannah River. News 12 took a trip down the Savannah and caught up with the Riverkeeper, Tonya Bonitatibus. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division has given her some new information.

"We've heard that it was a drop in the pH that killed the fish. The cause of that drop in pH -- we still believe is Aluminum Sulfate," she said.

She says that Aluminum Sulfate, or Alum, came from one of the local kaolin mines, but EPD continues investigating, and she's growing frustrated with their response.

"There was no fish advisory warning, there was no stay-out-of-the-creek warning, there was no don't-drink-out-of-this-creek warning," said the Riverkeeper.

She says the City of Waynesboro was left in the dark by EPD, too.

"The City of Waynesboro did not know, and they were not told even two days after the fish kill started. Their drinking water comes directly from that creek, downstream from the kill," Bonitatibus said.

And now, she's ready to take action.

"I would like to see a precautionary on these fish kills, not a let's wait, test, wait a week, and then let people know if there's something wrong," she said.

Just yesterday, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit against EPD. She's upset that after the largest fish kill in Georgia's state history last May, a textile company she and many others believe is responsible is only paying back $1 million. Now, with a fish kill even closer to home, Bonitatibus says she may have to file a similar suit.

"Yes, it's nice that we're there, but at the same time, you've got to realize you're relying on a nonprofit organization to alert your folks, and this is the government's job," Bonitatibus said.

If anything, she hopes EPD will learn some lessons from both kills.

News 12 tried to contact the EPD but did not hear back from them. On Tuesday, Kevin Chambers with EPD said they're investigating. Bonitatibus just wishes they'd let people know what is going on as a precautionary measure.

She's even scheduled a public meeting in Keysville about the most recent fish kill. They'll also be talking about how EPD's response could have been better. That meeting will take place 3 p.m. Oct. 30 at the Keysville Townhall.

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