The price tag is growing on the value of legal actions spawned by the death of 38,000 fish in the Ogeechee River two years ago.
King America Finishing, which already has paid confidential settlements to at least 60 property owners downstream from its Screven County fabric finishing plant and a $1 million penalty to the state, has agreed to spend another $5 million to make peace with environmental groups. The plant employs nearly 500 workers in the southeast Georgia area around Statesboro.
King America Finishing and the Ogeechee Riverkeeper have announced a settlement agreement that includes $5 million in commitments from the company, whose plant sits upstream from the 77-mile kill zone where the fish died. The company never admitted to killing the fish, and its attorney Christy Hull Eikhoff of Alston & Bird has maintained that drought and high temperatures could be the cause of the Columnaris outbreak that killed the fish.
Still, after the deadly event in May 2011, the parties learned that King America had not updated its wastewater discharge permit when it installed new flame retardant clothing manufacturing operations at the plant in 2006.
The new deal ends two years of battling over the terms of that permit and clears the way for the company to continue its operations with environmental controls in place to satisfy the nonprofit watchdog group.
Under the agreement, King America will donate $2.5 million to the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, which the organization said it will use for more data collection and monitoring of water quality. King America will spend another $2.5 million on upgrades at its plant. These funds will be spent in addition to at least $500,000 the company already has invested in new equipment, the announcement said.
In the announcement of the settlement, one of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper’s lawyers, Don Stack of Stack & Associates, said King America had agreed to “the most comprehensive water testing regimen that I’ve encountered in my nearly 30 years of advocating to protect the natural resources in the state of Georgia.”
Another lawyer for Ogeechee Riverkeeper, Hutton Brown of GreenLaw, said in the announcement that the deal represents “one of the largest settlement payments in Georgia history by a company for water-based environmental claims.”
King America President Michael Beasley said in the announcement, “After a long and productive dialogue with Ogeechee Riverkeeper, we are pleased that we have finally been able to make peace with one another.”
In addition to the 60 confidential settlements with property owners, the company paid a $1 million penalty to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and donated funds to help restock the fish in the river. The recent settlement announcement puts the company’s known cash outlay at more than $6.5 million.
After the fish died, the company faced claims from as many as 300 property owners in 85 separate cases, according to Eikhoff. Most of those cases are still pending. Owners of homes, farms and businesses in the area claimed that the incident damaged their land value and their enjoyment of their property.