Originally updated: Nov. 15, 2018, 4:09 p.m.
A chemical spill at a Dawsonville chicken processing plant that killed over 8,000 fish in March of this year has been named one of the 12 worst offenses to Georgia’s waters by the Georgia Water Coalition.
A 29-page report released by the coalition on Tuesday classifies the incident one of a “Dirty Dozen” areas in Georgia where the health of Georgia’s water is threatened either through policies or incidents.
On March 20, a forklift operator at Gold Creek Foods in Dawsonville accidentally punctured a 55-gallon drum of ferric chloride, a chemical commonly used to treat water at the plant. Between 40 and 45 gallons flowed downhill into a retention pond and into Flat Creek, which is a tributary to Shoal Creek and the Etowah River.
The spill was not reported until two days later when city of Dawsonville employees discovered that the water had turned bright orange from the acid and that there were hundreds of dead fish and other wildlife.
According to the GWC, investigators with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources estimate that 8,262 fish were killed, including 1,990 Cherokee darters, one of three fish species in the Etowah River that are federally protected and can only be found in the Etowah and creeks that feed it.
The state Environmental Protection Division fined Gold Creek Foods $15,000 for failing to notify the DNR and for placing a drum full of ferric chloride in an area that did not have secondary containment.
As part of the EPD’s order the facility was also required to clean up contaminated soil on the property, while the state foot the bill of the fish kill survey and spill investigation.
The report also states that through the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the authority to require Gold Creek Foods fund restoration projects to benefit the Cherokee darters.
Though this is the first time the processing plant has been fined by the EPD directly, the city of Dawsonville water department has been fined numerous times by the state since the plant opened in 2004.
In 2010, an environmental specialist with the EPD stated that Gold Creek Foods was a likely cause of excessive wastewater discharge in the city sewer system, leading to the city being fined. Then-Mayor Joe Lane Cox stated that the city passed the fines to Gold Creek Foods, though neither the city or the EPD can produce records showing that the fines were paid by Gold Creek Foods.
The plant also came under fire in August 2013 after contaminated stormwater runoff caused Robinson Elementary School to close its outdoorclassroom and garden.
The GWC report states that the recent spill and the devastation caused “highlights weak state oversight of industrial sites” and that Gold Creek Foods not only lacked structures to contain spills and prevent them from flowing into the creek but has repeatedly violated clean water benchmarks.
Joe Cook, advocacy and communication coordinator for the Coosa River Basin Initiative, which is a partner of the GWC, said Tuesday that the spill could have been prevented with a proper inspection.
"Industrial facilities are supposed to have safeguards in place to prevent chemicals from leaving their sites," he said. "Gold Creek Foods didn't have those safeguards in place, but Georgia's Environmental Protection Division stormwater pollution prevention staff had not inspected the site in at least five years. A proper inspection likely would have caught the inadequacies and safeguards could have been put in place."
Documents obtained from the EPD show that Gold Creek Foods tested its stormwater runoff four times in 2017 and exceeded benchmarks in five out of the 12 tests. Cook said that according to the industrial stormwater permit, when benchmarks are exceeded, the company's Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan is supposed to be reviewed to determine what modifications are necessary to prevent future violations.
“Despite these violations, Gold Creek Foods says in its 2017 Annual Report to the EPD that [testing] ‘will be reduced to annual sampling during the year 2018,’” Cook said in March. “This should have triggered additional monitoring; instead they’re telling the EPD they’re going to reduce [it].”
Bo Weber, legal representative for Gold Creek Foods, said Wednesday that to date, Gold Creek Foods has paid approximately $100,000 in expenses related to cleanup and prevention measures and said he believes they will spend another $100,000 to complete the implementation of those measures.
Documents from the EPD show that Gold Creek Foods has also paid the $15,000 in fines.
“Gold Creek Foods continually strives to improve its operations and processes,” Weber said in an email. “It has already taken a number of corrective actions beginning on the evening of the accidental spill, and continues to implement additional corrective actions approved by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division.”
Weber said that cleanup efforts were engaged immediately after the spill and that employees applied sodium bicarbonate and lime on the gravel area where the spill occurred as well as pumped the collected stormwater and ferric chloride from the on site detention pond into the facility’s wastewater pre-treatment system.
According to Weber, cleanup measures after the incident included the construction of a gravel berm between the spill location and the stormwater inlet; removal of impacted soil and gravel; flushing of the stormwater pipe between the inlet and detention pond and removal of stormwater and sediment in the detention pond; vacuuming of the pools of standing water in Flat Creek up to Jack Heard Road; soil pH testing to ensure contamination was successfully removed; and the spreading of lime in all excavated areas to neutralize any residual contamination.
Weber also said that the University of Georgia River Basin Center was engaged to perform a fish recolonization study for the impacted 3.7 mile length of Flat Creek and that Gold Creek Foods reevaluated its stormwater system to ensure it can “effectively convey, retain and pass storm water from significant rainfall event” and revised its Stormwater Pollution and Prevention Plan to implement additional structural controls.
He also said the facility continues to train its employees on spill controls and response protocol.
Kevin Chambers, a spokesperson for the EDP, said today that Gold Creek Foods is still in the process of completing two items included in a consent order that was issued in June and included the fine.
Those two items include revising the Stormwater Pollution and Prevention Plan and addressing the need for a secondary containment method as well as making sure the on-site ferric chloride tank is located in the containment area, among other pollution prevention measures.
“Gold Creek has submitted information but it hasn’t been approved,” Chambers said in an email.
In the Nov. 13 report, the GWC calls for Georgia leaders to provide more funding for the EPD to improve its industrial stormwater inspection program, stating that while there are around 2,800 facilities in Georgia like Gold Creek Foods that fall under its purview, the EPD sets out to review only 124 annually.
Cook said that the EDP has only two and a half employees who are responsible for inspecting those sites.
“From state leaders deceiving citizens and shortchanging environmental programs in the state budget to powerful corporations using their influence to change state policy at the expense of ordinary citizens, this report is as much about dirty politics as it is dirty water,” said Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director and riverkeeper with the Coosa River Basin Initiative.
The full GWC report can be viewed online here: https://www.gawater.org/resources/dirty-dozen.
This story will be updated.