A Friday press release from Gold Creek Foods representatives states that the chicken processing plant in downtown Dawsonville has been working closely with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division as well as a third-party environmental remediation company to clean the areas affected by a chemical spill that occurred at the plant early Tuesday morning.
Officials with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources say they are investigating the incident, in which a 55-gallon tank of ferric chloride burst on the property, bypassed the plant’s detention pond and entered Flat Creek, which runs behind Robinson Elementary School.
The release, which was sent to the Dawson County News by Bo Weber, general counsel for Gold Creek Foods, states that at about 4 a.m. Tuesday, a forklift driver at the plant on Hwy. 9 N accidentally hit and punctured the container of ferric chloride, a solution used in the plant’s water treatment process.
“While we promptly responded to the release, including intensive cleanup with gravel removal and the washing and cleaning of the safety retention area specifically designed for this, some of the material entered a shallow, nearby stream,” the release reads.
The release did not state how much of the chemical was able to leak into the creek, but Dawsonville City Manager Bob Bolz said Thursday that the water was testing at a pH of 1, as opposed to the creek's normal pH of 5.5 to 6.5, meaning the water was highly acidic.
And dead aquatic life, including fish, worms, salamanders and snails were found as far as Flat Creek Drive on the other side of town.
Bolz sent out a release Friday morning, which stated that Gold Creek Foods began clean-up efforts with Hulsey Environmental Services Thursday evening.
“Ferric chloride by nature is heavier than water and settles to the bottom of pools in the stream,” the release reads. “As water increases such as from rainfall, the chemical can be washed further downstream.”
Flat Creek empties out into Shoal Creek, which eventually runs into the Etowah River, the source of the county’s drinking water and home to endangered fish species.
Etowah Water and Sewer Authority was made aware of the spill Thursday afternoon, Bolz said.
EPD District Manager Jim Cooley said Friday morning that officials with his department as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and Wildlife Resources Division are coordinating with local emergency management contractors to clean up the spill.
“It seems to be an isolated incident that is not directly involved with the operations of the facility,” Cooley said. “We will continue to investigate throughout the weekend and should have some more information on Monday.”
Gold Creek Foods stated that they deeply regret that the incident occurred and are committed to fully addressing the issue.
“We are reviewing all of our procedures with the third party environmental remediation company and will update them as needed,” the release states. “Gold Creek and its employees are proud members of this community and we cherish the environment here. We will learn from this incident and take all actions we know to take to prevent it from happening again.”
Bolz said Thursday that Gold Creek Foods did not notify anyone when the spill occurred, and that it was discovered by city employees Thursday morning.
The employees noticed a strange color to the water in the creek, which flows in front of the city’s public works facilities, and upon investigation saw numerous dead fish and other aquatic life.
Environmental Management Services were called in to test the water, and noting the change in pH, recommended the EPD be notified.
Officials with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources deployed personnel with the EPD Hazardous Response Team as well as fishery biologists with the Wildlife Resources Division. They were on site Thursday afternoon to assess the damage.
The city’s release also states that there is no risk to city drinking water, but that citizens should use caution and refrain from contact with the stream water in Flat Creek and prohibit livestock from drinking.
This is not the first time that the city has had issues with the plant, which is required to pre-treat its wastewater before it enters the city’s wastewater system.
The city has been fined numerous times by the EPD for issues with its wastewater treatment plant, fines it reportedly passed on to Gold Creek Foods. In August 2013, the plant came under scrutiny when contaminated stormwater runoff caused Robinson Elementary to shut close its outdoor classroom and garden.
Gold Creek Foods received notice from the EPD for failing to contain water containing “blood and high biological content” that dripped off trucks when workers loaded and unloaded at the plant. The plant is adjacent to the school’s playground, and stormwater ran above ground across the school’s property.
Gold Creek Foods was required to install a drainage pipe that “eliminated contact between poultry by-products and stormwater” as well as a second drip pad to catch runoff from the trucks.
Students and teachers reported to Robinson Elementary for school on Friday, but students were not allowed to go outside for recess.
Superintendent Damon Gibbs reported on Friday that student absences were eight percent higher than average.
He stated that soil samples have been taken at the school, but that it will likely be early next week before any results are available.