Ogeechee River Suffers Major Fish Kill

Death zone kills 80 percent of sunfish, 60 percent of bass in 70-mile stretch that begins at textile plant discharge pipe; state investigating cause.

GON Staff | July 1, 2011

Five weeks after one of the most devastating fish kills in Georgia history decimated the Ogeechee River, state officials aren’t sure why it happened, but attention centers on a wastewater discharge pipe at King America Finishing.

Imagine your favorite fishing lake suddenly losing 60% of its bass and 80% of its bream to a massive die-off and not knowing the cause. That’s the situation facing Ogeechee River anglers.

Five weeks after one of the most devastating fish kills in Georgia history decimated the Ogeechee River, state officials aren’t sure why it happened, but attention centers on a wastewater discharge pipe at King America Finishing. The textile plant near Sylvania has 175 employees and processes more than 50 million yards of fabric annually, applying finishes like fire retardant and water-resistant coatings.

The Ogeechee River death zone stretches for 70 miles and begins just below the wastewater discharge pipe.

WRD Fisheries Region Supervisor Tim Barrett first observed the scene on May 20 and found a bad situation at the Highway 301 bridge area.

“Lots of dead fish there, lots of dying fish there,” said Barrett. “Fish varied from still living but stressed enough where you just go pick them up to fish that had obviously been dead four or five days. So, big (time) range there.

“I took one of my technicians back up there with a boat (on May 21),” said Barrett. “I wanted to be below Rocky Ford where I knew there were healthy fish and above Highway 301.”

Barrett reached the area of King America Finishing, which on its website says, “We manage our own waste treatment facility which empties back into the Ogeechee River. The Ogeechee is the cleanest river in Georgia and some of the best fishing in the area can be enjoyed behind our plant.”

According to Barrett, “It was about 50 yards below their effluent pipe where we found the first dead fish — no dead fish above the effluent.”

King America has a state-issued permit to discharge treated wastewater into the Ogeechee River. The permit is issued by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD), but details of exactly what is released from the pipe aren’t available until EPD completes an investigation of the fish kill, according to EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers.

“That’s part of the investigation that hasn’t been made available yet. I don’t have anything I can release yet,” Chambers said.

About a week after the fish kill was first reported, EPD announced it was caused by columnaris, a bacterial disease that infects fish when they are stressed. Fish samples were collected and sent to Auburn University’s Fish Disease Center for analysis.

Meanwhile, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tested water samples after the fish kill and found ammonia, formaldehyde and hydrogen peroxide, which the agency described as chemicals of potential concern.

“Exposure to a mixture of chemicals in combination with unseasonably warm temperatures and low flows may have been sufficient to weaken the fish. These multiple factors may have weakened the fish enough to make them susceptible to disease,” said an EPA report.

The Ogeechee River has been experiencing extremely low water flows this year. On May 19, the day the fish kill was reported, the nearest USGS gauge to the area of the fish kill recorded a flow rate of 274 cubic feet per second (cfs). That’s only 16 percent of the average historical flow rate for May 19, which is 2,368 cfs.

“The unusual thing about this kill was that it was across all species and all sizes,” Barrett said. “A lot of times you’ll have fish kills that are one species, or if it’s an oxygen kill the bigger fish will die first. This was all sizes, all species, which made us very worried. I knew this was a significant event. I have been working directly with the Ogeechee and Savannah rivers for 16 years as a biologist, and I’ve never seen such as this. To me, it was a big deal.”

Barrett reports the following species of fish were seen dead: bluegill, redbreast, spotted sunfish, largemouth bass, chain pickerel, gar, bowfin, darter species, minnow species, suckers, crappie, bullhead catfish, channel catfish, white catfish, striped bass, American shad and eel. An estimated 38,634 fish were lost.

“When we see all sizes of all species, including these more hearty species — bowfin, gar, eel, catfish — it gives us concern. Something was going on that was pretty serious,” said Barrett.

Electrofishing samples conducted after the fish kill indicated 79 percent of sunfish and 61 percent of largemouth bass were lost at those sampling locations in the kill zone.

In addition to fish, there have been reports of other dead animals in the Ogeechee. In response to a reported mussel kill, WRD Biologist Jason Wisniewski, who specializes in mullosks, conducted sampling a week after the incident both upstream and downstream of the King America effluent pipe. He found large numbers of freshly killed invasive Asian clams downstream of the pipe, and very few dead individuals above. He said it was not a complete kill off of the species, but it was significant.

Jason made a point to note that he captured live crayfish, darters, dragonfly larvae and hellgramites in his nets. He found this interesting because these species are particularly sensitive to environmental stressors.

“Typically in a situation where you have that kind of disturbance in the watershed, the invertebrates are the first thing to go,” he said.

Meanwhile, the big question remains, how did so many fish in the Ogeechee River suddenly die?

“We have not thrown up our hands to finding that. We are still actively pursuing that common stressor. EPD is actively pursuing that common stressor, in multiple ways,” Barrett said.

“The perception we’re dealing with is we (the government agencies) were asleep at the wheel, that we’re throwing up our hands, that we’re sweeping it under the rug, but there are a lot of things going on that people don’t have a clue about. And I understand their frustration, but we have not quit, not one minute, we’re still pursuing this with all we got. I know firsthand EPD is as well.”

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