Question: I hear about the Georgia EPD entering into consent orders with polluters like King America Finishing and Rayonier.  What does that mean?

Answer: A consent order/decree/agreement is basically just a mechanism used to resolve a dispute between a violator and an agency before going to full trial. Usually the terms of the agreement involve that the violator follow certain agreed-upon steps to clean up a site by a certain time, in a certain way.

Both the agency and the polluter like consent agreements because it allows them to avoid the expense and public attention of litigation, allows the polluter to come into compliance with the law without having to immediately stop their pollution, thus avoiding penalties, and be given a time frame to clean up their pollution rather than having to clean it up or stop it immediately. Consent orders can be problematic for river ecosystems, river users, and downstream businesses and communities for the same reason. Consent orders void citizens or river groups rights to bring a Clean Water Act citizen lawsuit. They allow pollution to continue over a period of time, impacting the river ecosystem, fish, and wildlife; people who use the river for fishing, swimming or boating; and other communities and businesses downstream who depend on the river for clean water and economic development.

We’ve heard a lot about Georgia polluters entering into consent orders and consent agreements in the past couple years.  But what does a consent order have to do with the fish dying in the Ogeechee River?  When Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) investigated King America Finishing after the 2011 fish kill, EPD discovered a new and unpermitted production discharge line – which was illegal by the terms of the Clean Water Act – that had been in operation for at least five years.  EPD and King America attorneys signed a consent order without public input that laid out terms acceptable to the state and the corporation.  Consent orders essentially allow violators to clean-up their pollution without facing a public trial or paying fines; if violators do not live up to the terms of the order they could go to trial or face fines.  In the Ogeechee’s situation, the consent order allows the illegal discharge to continue and requires King America to spend $1,000,000 on undetermined environmental projects.  Without the consent order, King America could be subject to $98,000,000 in fines as laid out in the Clean Water Act.

To read more about the Ogeechee River’s situation, read the Georgia Water Wire.