EPD Director Jud Turner acknowledged that last week in a meeting with local officials from Effingham County who live downstream from the plant that discharges into the Ogeechee River in Screven County.
"I recognize from a PR standpoint this has not been fun for anybody," he told them.
The 38,000 fish died in May, 2011, before Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Turner to the post. At the time, the agency was guarded about what information it released about its investigation, cleanup response and plans to punish the company.
Turner, although as cautious as most attorneys, said he changed that approach and sought to be as open as possible with the public. However, the strategy hasn't been universally successful.
After 90 minutes explaining the agency's actions to the Effingham officials, he learned how little of the message had been getting through.
County Commissioner Steve Mason said, "I've been following this pretty closely, and this is all news to me."
The agency traced the source of the pollution to King America which had had a permit to discharge into the river from its textile plant. However, it had added a fire-retardant production line five years earlier without notifying the EPD as required. The fish died because a drought lowered the water flow in the river to the point where it could no longer adequately dilute the fire-retardant pollution.
The EPD halted all discharge from the plant for a month, and then allowed it to resume at a significantly lower level and minus the fire-retardant chemicals. It also got company officials to accept a $1 million fine and promise to clean up their act as well as paying for independent monitoring of the water quality.
The Effingham officials said they hadn't been aware the agency had insisted on cleaner discharge.
"We have cleaned up the discharge," he says flatly.
Part of Turner's problem is that he is, as he often says, "trying to thread the needle" to protect both jobs and the environment at the same time.
He could have fined the company $90 million. But he gauged it on fines in similar situations around the country.
He could also halt operation of the plant until EPD issues a new discharge permit. There are 450 jobs at the plant, making it a major employer in such a rural part of the state.
After the month-long shutdown following the fish kill, EPD issued a stricter permit to the company. Agency officials assumed that certain safeguards like public hearings and an anti-degradation study required of new permits would be unnecessary because the revised permit was more protective of the environment. After all, who would object if the permit makes the river cleaner?
Lawyers for riverside property owners and environmental groups, that's who. They've filed legal challenges to nearly every action EPD has taken, including a lawsuit to make the agency shutter the plant until the lengthy permit process is resolved, and perhaps permanently.
Turner says the steps EPD has taken with King America are the most rigorous in the state and should become a model for policing discharges elsewhere, drawing the likely howls of protest from local governments as well as industry. For example, King America must reduce how much it discharges when the river's flow shrinks even if it means temporarily closing the plant, a requirement no other discharge-permit holder has.
Yet, despite countless newspaper articles, public meetings and press releases, EPD hasn't won public confidence. Mason said that people living as much as a mile away from the river won't fish, hunt game or use their well water, even after EPD and others have produced tests showing no risk.
"You've got to understand: we've got people who don't trust the data. We're in the conspiracy world," Turner told the county officials. "We do need help from all you guys."
Georgia is one of the few states in which the agency charged with enforcing federal environmental laws also has job preservation written into its core mission. Trying to serve both masters may create an inherent credibility problem with both.
Walter Jones is Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. Follow him on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or reach him at email@example.com and 404-589-8424.