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County, King America reach out-of-court settlement

POSTED: October 24, 2013 7:49 p.m.

An agreement between Effingham County and King America Finishing is under wraps, until all the signatures have been received, after county commissioners agreed Tuesday night to an out-of-court settlement.


Commissioners retained Savannah law firm Oliver Maner for the possibility of seeking a claim against the Screven County textile plant. The plant has been viewed as the source for a May 2011 fish kill along the Ogeechee River. More than 38,000 fish were found dead downstream of the plant’s discharge pipe into the river. Those fish were found to have died from a bacteria, columnaris.


No fish that died as a result of columnaris were found upstream of the pipe during that time.


“In the interest of avoiding the time, expense and effort devoted to outcome uncertain of litigation, all parties have agreed the best way to resolve this dispute is through an out-of-court settlement,” said county commission Chairman Wendall Kessler.


Kessler added that neither the county nor King America will have further comment on the matter.


The settlement could be subject to open records requests, once all the interested parties have signed it, however.


“There was a whole bunch of places for a whole bunch of signatures,” Kessler said.


In a special called meeting last week, county commissioners discussed the settlement during executive session, and they discussed it again during a brief executive session at their regular meeting Tuesday night.


“There were still some questions,” Kessler said, “so we took a few minutes and got those ironed out.”


Though most of the property along the river in Effingham is privately-owned, the county owns Steel Bridge Landing where Highway 119 crosses the Ogeechee, adjacent to the Bulloch County line.


King America Finishing has been the target of more than 60 lawsuits in state and federal courts as a result of the May 2011 fish kill that affected 70 miles of the Ogeechee. Many of those proceedings have been settled but their resolutions have been made confidential.


A consent order was issued against the company but later withdrawn after complaints that there wasn’t public comment or input. A new consent order required third-party testing of the discharge for 18 months and for the company to pay $1 million in fines to go toward supplemental environmental projects.


The EPD discovered the company was operating a fire-retardant process line that previously was unknown to the regulatory agency.


The state has issued a draft discharge permit for King America Finishing, which faced more than 60 lawsuits in state and federal courts as a result of the fish kill.


Kessler said he told the company that any settlement — once it’s signed — would be subject to state open records rules. The original settlement apparently contained provisions similar to those in the cases with individual landowners.


“We are under an agreement not to disclose anything,” Kessler said. “They sent us a new agreement that allowed it to be disclosed to the extent that it is required by the Georgia open records act.”


The necessary signatures could be procured as soon as the end of next week.


Kessler originally attempted to get the item pertaining to the settlement placed on the agenda at the start of Tuesday’s meeting. But other commissioners balked until more information could be disclosed to them in executive session.


“There is still a legal question that is unanswered,” said Commissioner Steve Mason.


Mason also added he wasn’t comfortable adding items to the agenda after the meeting started, but Commissioner Phil Kieffer pointed out the list for Tuesday’s meeting had been finalized nearly two weeks ago, before the special called meeting last week. Mason said he wanted the public to have a chance to hear any discussion on the topic.


Since the commissioners’ questions about the settlement were material for an executive session, during which board members can talk about matters of personnel, property or pending litigation, “the citizens would not get the benefit of a discussion anyway,” said Commissioner Vera Jones.

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