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River lawsuits to be heard in Bulloch

POSTED: November 26, 2012 7:58 p.m.

The Ogeechee River issue will land back in Bulloch County Superior Court Judge John R. Turner’s courtroom soon, now that a federal judge has remanded a case back to the county in which it was filed.


Actually, 13 lawsuits sent to federal court were remanded back to Turner’s courtroom, but one of the most notable is a case filed by several Ogeechee River land owners who are not happy with the condition of the river.


The case was filed originally in Bulloch Superior Court, but the defendants appealed and removed it to federal court.


Turner heard a related case about the Ogeechee River in July and took state regulators to task for giving a $1 million consent order to King America Finishing after investigations revealed the plant was had been illegally discharging from its fire retardant line for five years. Turner tossed out the $1 million consent order.


Plaintiff Dan Taulbee, an attorney, said, “We sought to have the case remanded back to Bulloch County, and we’re pleased it’s remanded.”


Si Waters, a partner with L.A. Waters Farm Properties LLC, agreed.


“It’s kind of where we wanted it, in Bulloch County court,” he said. “I don’t know why the (Environmental Protection Division) won’t do what they’re supposed to do. It looks like it’s going to be up to the citizens to stop (King America’s discharge into the river).”


A complaint filed in July against the Screven County textiles plant, CEO and President Michael Alan Beasley and the plant’s property owner, Westex Holding Co., lists the following plaintiffs: L. Gregory Hodges, Cynthia D. Hodges, Dan R. Taulbee, Remer D. Clifton, Dr. John T. Hodges, L. Inman Hodges Sr.; W.M. Sheppard Properties LLP and L.A. Waters Farm Properties LLC, all of whom own property in Bulloch County along the Ogeechee River.


Lisa Godbey Wood, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, sent the case back to Bulloch County Superior Court. In her opinion, filed Nov. 9, she stated Beasley gave testimony during a deposition that he directed installation of flame retardant lines without assessing whether changes to the chemical process at the plant would affect the discharge into the Ogeechee River, according to reports.


Attorney Lee Dehihns, representing King America Finishing in several lawsuits, including some by the Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization, said, “Now that the procedural question about the proper forum has been worked out, King America is looking forward to the opportunity to defend these claims on the merits in Bulloch County.”


The civil action states that King America Finishing is the “only large industrial facility with significant discharge of wastewater into the river in Dover, Ga.,” and has “… since 2006 … repeatedly and unlawfully discharged toxic chemicals into the Ogeechee River in violation (of a Department of Natural Resources permit).


“Those actions proximately and directly caused the extensive death and destruction of aquatic life including fish, amphibians and reptiles,” the lawsuit reads. It also cited orders from the DNR for residents not to consume fish from the river or swim in the river following a May 2011 incident that saw 38,000 fish die downriver from King America “due to health concerns.”


As a result of the illegal discharge, “plaintiff’s real property has been permanently damaged … by loss of fish and other wildlife … market devaluation … loss and diminution of the ability to enjoy and utilize their real property,” the lawsuit states. Landowners along the river are “unable to catch and consume fish …” and the Ogeechee River “has been and will continue to be diminished by environmental degradation …” while land owners have been “deprived of unrestricted use and full enjoyment of real property.


“The nuisance will continue until Defendants are compelled to abate the nuisance by performing sufficient remedial corrective action to correct, clean up and restore plaintiff’s real property to its natural state as it was prior to the defendant’s improper and illegal discharge of  toxic chemicals into the Ogeechee River,” the civil action states.


Plaintiffs ask for compensation of property damage, the amount of which would be determined during trial. The lawsuit lists charges of trespass and negligence, states that the defendants have failed to attempt to rectify the matter, says land owners affected suffer from mental distress and anguish, and seeks punitive damages as well as recovery of attorney fees and costs. The lawsuit also demands a trial by jury.


The plaintiffs claim that since 2006, the plant’s discharge has decimated wildlife and aquatic life.

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