The fishkill on Georgia's Ogeechee River

Two boys swim in the Ogeechee River. Photo by Stephen Milner. 

To get a sense of the Ogeechee River in eastern Georgia, imagine twisty channels of coffee-colored water, inching past cypress trees draped in gray moss and under the occasional bridge. In many spots, the Ogeechee has the quality of a primordial Earth, where life forms are slowly evolving into the flora and fauna of today. Now imagine the same river not teeming with life but full of dead fish — 40,000 fish, mysteriously belly-up. Their carcasses, many pockmarked with lesions, line its banks, circle slowly in eddies, and pile up against fallen trees.

At 2:30 P.M. on Friday, May 20, 2011, headquarters phoned Tim Barrett to report that a citizen had seen some dead fish in the Ogeechee. Barrett was a biologist working for the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division. He climbed into his truck, buckled up, and got to work. And from a distance, at least, what happened in the next hours, days, weeks, and months would look familiar to anyone who has been in a movie theater in the last 30 years.

From films like A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich, we know to expect a conspiracy thriller, a detective story, and a legal drama, all wrapped up in one. Secrets will be exposed. The mighty will be brought low. Truth and justice will be vindicated.

The fact that it didn’t turn out exactly that way is not because the actors failed to follow the script. Most did. Barrett had the role of the conscientious professional, concerned above all to do right by the river and its wildlife. He raced up and down the back roads of eastern Georgia, checked for dead fish at bridge after bridge, fielded phone calls from Atlanta, launched a boat the next morning, and eventually pinpointed the upper and lower limits of the kill: from 50 yards below an effluent pipe belonging to King America Finishing to a point roughly 70 miles downstream. King America Finishing, now known as Milliken Longleaf, was a plant for dyeing and refinishing textiles, including fire-resistant fabrics.

While Barrett was on the river, other members of the alphabet cavalry were assembling: EPA, EPD, DNR/LE, EMA. Out came the isokinetic depth-integrating samplers and sand corers. Off went their samples to the labs. Late on Sunday, the public was advised not to swim in the Ogeechee or eat the fish. On Monday, after spending all of Friday evening dialing the emergency number at King Finishing and getting no response, officials finally got access to the facility for an inspection.

It took less than a week for the state to find its smoking gun: an infectious disease caused by a snakelike bacterium named Flavobacterium columnare, which is often present but usually harmless in fish populations. As Barrett later put it in his official report, the lab had detailed that “large necrotic areas [in the dead fish…] were grossly obvious” and determined that “the lesions observed were severe enough to kill the fish.”

On June 3, the federal EPA released a memo from one of its own scientists, a specialist in ecological risk assessment. She wrote that “[e]xposure to a mixture of chemicals in combination with unseasonably warm temperatures and low flows may have been sufficient to weaken the fish … enough to make them susceptible to disease. It may be impossible to ever know for certain exactly what happened.” Three chemicals in particular, all of them present in King America’s processing of flame-resistant textiles, had been detected in concentrations deemed too low to kill: hydrogen peroxide, ammonia, and formaldehyde.

In the meantime, fish deaths on the Ogeechee had slowed and stopped. The public was told it could resume swimming and eating its catch. By October, four months later, Barrett was out on the river again, restocking it with more than half a million fingerlings. And that was that, presumably. Science had spoken. End of story. Neither then nor at any time since has the State of Georgia declared pollution from the textile mill to be the cause or even a cause, in fact or in law, of the fish kill.


Photo by Stephen Milner

On May 24, a few days after Barrett received that phone call, “rglinton66” went online to commiserate with his fellow outdoorsmen. Scanning the comments in one popular forum, he came across the words “a few dead fish.” Suddenly he was angry:

[He] does not understand "a few dead fish" is like someone burning his church down. I go to the river and praise God for what he has made. A few dead fish? A carpenter built your church, God made that river!

“Georgia Jeff” had to see for himself how bad it was. He and a friend put a boat in the water shortly after dawn on May 28. After three hours, they had hardly seen a living fish, much less caught one. He posted the bad news on the forum later that evening:

I am very depressed. The river has been decimated! There were dead fish everywhere: bass, red breast, mud fish. Every downed tree had dead fish rotting in it. The whole area smelled of rotting fish. Almost nothing is left alive!

But it was left to “dannyoneal68” to capture the general sentiment most succinctly:

The whole thing makes me want to cry.

Anger, disbelief, tears: Their pristine river had been spoiled. Meandering for 300 miles through one of the most impoverished areas of the United States, the Ogeechee is, for many who live along it, so much more than a blue line on a map. I should know. In my childhood, the river was our rec center and swimming pool. Families gathered there for cookouts and storytelling. We searched its banks for arrowheads.

In our shared memories, the river is where we first tasted beer, where we fished together by firelight, where we went with our sweethearts. Just knowing that the water flowing around our ankles was on its way to the Atlantic Ocean — that made it easier to imagine the world of possibility that lay beyond our little towns and farms.

Which is why “pollution” meant one thing for state and federal investigators of the fish kill, and quite another for the anxious locals. As far as the professionals were concerned, it was chemistry, a matter of equations: It might be necessary to alter the input by changing a variable or two, so as to get a different, more palatable output.

For the locals, in contrast, the fish kill amounted to much more than a calculation error. It was a profanation, a blight upon the land, an existential threat. What had been immaculate was now sullied. Hallowed ground had been desecrated. Something irreplaceable had been lost.

In retrospect, therefore, the fish kill on the Ogeechee River assumes the character of a morality play, with dispassionate technocrats and impassioned countryfolk sharing the stage. Each of these groups, moreover, is an emblem of its own South. For there is a South today that is merely an address, its forests and rivers simple amenities and resources, and the Civil War no more than a chapter in a textbook.

For a dwindling rural White population, however, there still exists an older South, where in their own minds, those forests and rivers are extensions of the people who know and love them best; where battles must be fought to defend the land against insult and violation; and where it seems likely that this war, too, like that other one of 150 years ago, will end in humiliating defeat.


Photo by Stephen Milner.

Dianna Wedincamp was having none of the government’s wishy-washiness. She had just been chosen to head up Ogeechee Riverkeeper (ORK), a tiny but feisty watchdog group for which she had been working as outreach coordinator and watershed specialist. Dianna is a Southerner through and through. Salt of the earth. All she has to do is open her mouth to tip anyone off to the fact that she was born nearby.

A native of Emanuel County, some 50 river miles upstream of King America Finishing, she had already proved her mettle as an environmental warrior. She had her eye on the plant for years, having already documented what she believed to be violations of water quality standards relating to “turbidity, color, odor or other objectionable conditions which interfere with legitimate water uses.”

After the state and federal agencies made their findings public, therefore, Wedincamp responded for ORK. “It's very disappointing, because we know that the fish are under a lot of stress. We want to know what's causing the stress.” The sarcasm may have eluded someone distracted by her drawl, but it is unlikely that any of her neighbors along the Ogeechee missed it. “Well, duh,” she was saying. Wedincamp understood and sympathized with what people up and down the river believed to be the one essential fact in this catastrophe: The upper limit of the 70-mile kill zone was just 50 yards below King America’s pipe.

In an essay from 1975 titled “Common Sense as a Cultural System,” anthropologist Clifford Geertz observed that for people who put a high value on common sense, “some of the most crucial properties of the world” may be considered “invisible only to the clever”:

The world is what the wide-awake, uncomplicated [person] takes it to be. Sobriety, not subtlety, realism, not imagination, are the keys to wisdom; the really important facts of life lie scattered openly along its surface, not cunningly secreted in its depths. There is no need, indeed it is a fatal mistake to deny, as poets, intellectuals, priests, and other professional complicators of the world so often do, the obviousness of the obvious.

“Common sense,” in sum, “represents the world as a familiar world, one everyone can, and should, recognize ...” Two decades later, Terre Satterfield used Geertz’s insights in her analysis of the forest wars that had been raging in the Pacific Northwest for a decade. She argued in “‘Voodoo Science’ and Common Sense” that loggers in the so-called spotted owl controversy had “a specific perception of science as a closed domain — an elite, intellectual (and political) body bent on imposing abstract models of operation and protection on forests those same scientists have never seen ...” Put another way, in the view of the loggers, scientific expertise can be “a source of disenfranchisement and loss of control over the political processes that govern one’s life…”

Looking back at the events along the Ogeechee, I am struck by the deep identity-based distrust and scorn of experts and outsiders, as well as a strong desire on the part of these rural White Southerners to believe that they control their own destiny, political and otherwise. Again and again, they expressed their sense of being besieged, of losing control to outsiders, of standing by while something intimately familiar was transformed into something utterly foreign:

Them boys [i.e., government employees] get mad as fire seeing strangers up around " THEIR " water! LOL!! I run up there from 301 and got questioned one time as to who I was .... Said nope, I ran up from 301, boy was he mad!!

King America was “an outsider that is here only to profit at the expense of the Ogeechee River.” What happened was something that “you used to read about in the paper, some river way off over somewhere else. I mean, up in the Northeast, a river catching fire. Those things just shouldn’t happen.” It was “third-world behavior.” As one woman wrote in an email to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division:

We are not China. We are not India. We are not Vietnam. We are the USA. If our government can’t or won’t protect the people, we must be allowed to protect ourselves.

In early June, the EPD realized that in 2006, the plant had expanded its operations and begun operating two additional, unauthorized factory lines to produce flame-resistant fabrics. For five years, therefore, it had been discharging wastewater into its treatment ponds and from there into the river, despite not having sought or received a permit to do so.

Accordingly, on September 21, 2011, the state announced that King America had agreed to take corrective actions and pay $1 million to fund environmental projects on the river.

Wedincamp sought the advice of Chandra Brown, her former boss at ORK, on how the organization should respond to news of the consent order. Brown remembers thinking that $1 million seemed like a lot of money. “I suggested we call a communications consultant we’d worked with before. We got him on the phone, and he began suggesting some language. ‘Ogeechee Riverkeeper is pleased that King America is being held accountable’ — that sort of thing.

Dianna was not okay with that. She knew people here would say it’s not enough. And she was exactly right. They were livid, and they stayed angry. I think the state was really surprised by the hostility.”

Emily Markesteyn, who now heads the organization, was Wedincamp’s colleague at ORK in 2011—and she agrees. “People felt betrayed. From the get-go, the EPD and the public were on opposite sides. The state didn’t take their concern seriously enough… The agency appeared nonchalant, and then it downplayed the violations that came to light.”

In phone and face-to-face conversations with Wedincamp, the river’s many defenders were no doubt using the same words and phrases that they were firing at the EPD in letters, in emails, and at meetings: atrocity, disgrace, crime against nature, despoiled, destroyed, tarnished forever. They appealed to the same common-sense logic over and over: Since King America’s owners and EPD officials would certainly refuse to drink a glass of water filled with the chemicals in dispute, they should shut the plant down immediately.

For many, moreover, it was clear that the government was, at a minimum, overly deferential to corporate America, if it wasn’t actually involved in a criminal conspiracy with it:

Big business just, you know, you can’t let big business run over us like that. And I don’t think we’re going to let it run over us in Bulloch County, because if you at EPD don’t do your job, I believe there’s people around Bulloch County that will do their job.

It is very obvious there is a cover up going on somewhere whether it’s from Washington to King America or in between to Atlanta, Georgia. There is a cover up going on somewhere and the citizens and the people that live along this river are tired of it.

It was in this atmosphere that Riverkeeper and its attorneys decided to challenge the September consent order, notwithstanding the seven-figure settlement. Later, it also filed a suit in federal court under the Clean Water Act.

Nor was it alone. Individuals pursued some 80 tort claims against Westex, the then owner of King America. Ultimately, the company spent several million dollars to settle with ORK and all the other litigants; agreed to invest in a multimillion-dollar upgrade of its facility; and signed a substantially revised consent order with the EPD, which encompassed a stricter pollution permit as well as payment of a larger sum of money than initially ordered to fund third-party research and water-quality monitoring.

In May 2014, Westex was sold. In January 2015, the EPD fined the new owner of the textile plant $150,000 for persistent problems with toxicity and fecal coliform in its treatment ponds.


Photo by Stephen Milner.

At one of the meetings which the law requires the state to hold for public comment before taking certain administrative actions, an older man stepped up to the microphone and called for the arrest of those sitting on the dais:

Is there an officer of the law with the infinitesimal fortitude that will come forward? I have here a signed complaint against EPD for aiding and abetting King America and polluting our river. I want you to make an arrest now. I have here the materials to back up everything I say. This is not an idle thing. Be a man. We need another Scott Walker in this place tonight. That was the most important issue that has been voted on in the United States in the last 50 years, as in Wisconsin. They returned this country to the people.

Scott Walker is the Republican governor of Wisconsin. A week before that meeting about the fish kill, Walker had survived a recall election driven largely by his success the year before in stripping most public-sector unions of their collective-bargaining rights.

Which leads to a question that has been patiently waiting to be asked. Georgia’s electoral votes have gone to the Republican candidate in all but one of the last eight presidential elections. In a recent poll, 80% of registered voters described themselves as very conservative (15%), conservative (32%), or moderate (33%), and a quarter as supporters of the Tea Party.

A full 72% of likely white voters without a college degree intend to vote Republican in 2016. How did it happen that among these very Southerners, so many pleaded for help from a government that they have consistently voted to shrink, supported an environmental group with links to archliberal Robert F. Kenney, Jr., and retained attorneys from the often-reviled trial lawyers lobby?

There’s that expression: when ideology meets reality. Certainly one answer might be that few people can claim never to have been hypocritical. Surely, however, it is more than mere hypocrisy. In a recent Mother Jones article titled “I Spent Five Years With Some of Trump’s Biggest Fans.

Here’s What They Won’t Tell You,” adapted from her new book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press, 2016), Arlie Russell Hochschild identifies what she calls the “deep story,” that is, the “feels-as-if-it's-true story,” that she heard again and again during her five years in Louisiana. It is “a story of unfairness and anxiety, stagnation and slippage” that accounts for “feelings underpinning opinions and votes.” In this deep story among conservative White Louisianans, the key sentiment is this: “It’s not my government anymore; it’s theirs.”

Hochschild claims that “they” and “their” in this deep story refer to groups such as Black people who are assumed to benefit more from affirmative action and public assistance, career-driven women, immigrants, refugees, and so on. I wonder. Consider this testimonial, offered by a 61-year-old man at a public meeting in June 2012:

I’d also like to register for the record that my daughter, Laura, is here. I brought a photograph. They say one picture is worth a thousand words. This is my daughter, Laura, sitting over here. This is when she was four years old ... If you can see the river, actually, when I’m looking at the smiles of the children’s faces and their cousins in the background, all of them in the water. An entire day in the water… I can’t believe all the people that are here on a weeknight. My daughter is tired, we’re hungry, we haven’t eaten. You’re here. Take back to Atlanta what you see here tonight and may you take it positively. This is a people’s movement… All the birthdays, all the reunions, family get-togethers, it was always on the river.

Another man, about the same age and confessing to a feeling of “tremendous” emotional loss, stepped forward to recall the several times he traveled with his father to Atlanta to “deal with the EPD [back] then.” He noted that he had bought his sister’s share of the family’s house on the Ogeechee “when my mom and dad passed away,” but that he rarely went there now, not even to visit the graves of three water-loving Labrador retrievers who had died suspiciously premature deaths. After all, the river was “a pretty nasty place right now.”

These men were not the only people who appeared to feel that they had somehow become “strangers in their own land.” Something had changed, something valuable had been lost:

I have fished the Ogeechee, Canoochee, and Ohoopee rivers for more than five decades. I can remember when you could see schools of mullet well over a hundred yards long. Stripers, or "rockfish" as we called them, could be caught regularly along with the redbreast for which these rivers were renowned. When the river was "right" it was common for two men to fill a 48-quart cooler with perch, jack and bass and still have time to have a fish fry before dark. Of course those days are long gone…

For these angry and mournful Southerners, I believe, the fish kill served as proxy for something bigger, and it was ideal for that purpose, because in memory if not in fact, the Ogeechee River had been for them an iconic place of purity and innocence, “where you almost felt like you were in a different world and you could almost feel a connection to days gone by and generations gone by.”

It was a place, moreover, that they knew with an intimate knowledge of its every whim and quirk, like someone from Atlanta knows each curve and bump of Interstate 285. When all those fish died in their river, this particular group of Southerners had dramatic confirmation, but confirmation only, of what they had long sensed. It had been there in the signs of chronic unemployment, stagnating income, prescription-drug abuse, teen births, obesity, violent crime, and a dozen other social ills. Clearly, something had changed, something valuable had been lost, and whatever it was, it had robbed them of their river.

“Who’s at fault? Who’s going to take responsibility?” These were the questions laid before state officials back in 2012. Everyone knew that hard-working Tim Barrett was not at fault. No one would have allowed Dianna Wedincamp to take responsibility. So many good people, and still so much death and destruction. Who?

Maybe these conservatives were hypocritical for demanding help from an agency whose budget Republican legislators cut by 43 percent between 2008 and 2012. And maybe some of their frustration about the fish kill was bleeding over from resentment, as Hochschild has it, of pushy women and grasping minorities.

But, in the end, when the anger dies away, as it invariably does, it is the mourning that remains. And that’s what I hear in their voices. Not rage and scapegoating, but sorrow and bewilderment at finding themselves in a broken, increasingly deserted land, where they speak a language that fewer and fewer people elsewhere understand.