An investigation into the March 20 chemical spill at Gold Creek Foods that contaminated a Dawsonville creek is ongoing according to Kevin Chambers, communications director for the state Environmental Protection Division.
“We do not have any additional findings to announce at this time,” Chambers said in an email on Tuesday. “I will share more information...as it becomes available.”
According to a statement released by legal counsel for Gold Creek Foods, a chicken processing plant located on Hwy. 9 North, an employee was driving a forklift around 4 a.m. March 20 and accidentally punctured at 55-gallon drum of ferric chloride, a chemical used to treat the plant’s wastewater before it is released into the city's wastewater system.
Gold Creek Foods stated that they took measures to contain the spill, but that some of it was able to bypass the plant’s retention area and enter Flat Creek, a tributary to Shoal Creek that begins at the plant and runs behind Robinson Elementary School.
Officials with the EPD were not notified until March 22, when city officials reported the contamination and hundreds of dead fish, salamanders, snails and other wildlife found dead in the stream.
Though the city’s drinking water was not in danger of contamination, a press release from the city urges residents to use caution and refrain from contact with the stream water in Flat Creek, as well as prohibit livestock from drinking it.
Students and teachers reported to Robinson Elementary for school on Friday, but students were not allowed to go outside for recess until Monday as soil samples collected on the playground were being tested by Mill Creek Environmental.
Superintendent Damon Gibbs released a statement from the soil testing company on Monday.
"The results of the soil sampling we completed at the Robinson Elementary School playground on Friday were good,” the statement reads. “The pH of all of the samples was well within the normal range for soil in this area of Georgia. We did not note any chemical odors, areas of dead vegetation, or indications of stormwater run-on from Gold Creek Foods. The playground was not affected by the chemical spill at the Gold Creek water treatment plant. It is safe for the students to use.”
Independently, Joe Cook, advocacy and communication coordinator with the Coosa River Basin Initiative, said his group has been investigating the spill.
The Coosa River Basin Initiative is a 501(c)(3) environmental organization based in Rome that advocates for the natural resources of the Upper Coosa River Basin, which includes the Etowah River and its tributaries.
Gold Creek Foods has a stormwater permit from the EPD, and Cook said Monday he is trying to obtain the plant’s Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan, which it is required to keep on-site.
“The company is also required to have in place safeguards that would prevent a spill from reaching nearby streams,” he wrote in a recent report. “It appears that if these safeguards were in place they failed, and that internal emergency response was not adequate to stem the flow of the chemical.”
He said on Monday that in correspondence with the EPD, they revealed the plant has not been inspected in the past five years. In addition, Cook obtained documents from the EPD on the city’s stormwater monitoring reports for 2017.
According to the documents, Gold Creek Foods tested its stormwater runoff four times last year, and exceeded benchmarks for total suspended solids in five out of the 12 tests. On June 23, tests showed high levels of fecal coliform in the runoff.
According to the industrial stormwater permit, when benchmarks are exceeded, the 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. “This should have triggered additional monitoring; instead they’re telling the EPD they’re going to reduce [it].”
Cook said he expects the EPD will place a hefty fine on the chicken processing plant.
“From our perspective, what took place at Gold Creek Foods is a symptom of a larger problem of industrial facilities often not having in place proper safeguards and state agencies not having resources to inspect facilities to make sure tragedies like this don’t happen,” Cook said. “The EPD is not allocated enough funds to protect these streams where we swim and fish and boat and get our drinking water. Maybe if they had been inspected in the past five years, this wouldn’t have happened.”