SAVANNAH, Ga. -

A southeast Georgia judge revived an environmental group's legal challenge to a deal between the state Environmental Protection Division and a textile processing plant that was found to be illegally discharging chemicals into the Ogeechee River after thousands of fish turned up dead there last year.

Bulloch County Superior Court Judge John R. Turner ruled Monday the agreement between the state agency and King America Finishing is invalid because the EPD failed to hold a required public hearing. The judge also determined the nonprofit Ogeechee Riverkeeper has standing to challenge the deal in court.

The Savannah Morning News reports (http://bit.ly/LKxLvJ) Turner's decision sends the case back to an administrative law judge, who ruled against the environmental group in March.

"I would hope we have a fair forum when we go back," said Hutton Brown, an attorney for the Ogeechee Riverkeeper.

Georgia wildlife officials and environmentalists were stunned in May 2011 when an estimated 33,000 fish died in a disease outbreak in the river. Government scientists concluded the outbreak was likely caused by a combination of unseasonably high water temperatures, drought that impeded river flows and three chemicals - ammonia, formaldehyde and hydrogen peroxide - that likely made the fish vulnerable.

An investigation found King America had been discharging chemicals without a permit into the river for five years. The company entered into a consent agreement with the EPD in which it agreed to pay $1 million for environmental projects on the river.

The Ogeechee Riverkeeper argued that's insufficient punishment for the largest fish kill in Georgia's history. Environmentalists say state law would allow for more than $90 million in penalties against King America.

EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers declined to comment on the Superior Court judge's ruling.