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Georgia’s Toxic Blue Fish Kill

August 12, 2010

On Wednesday July 28, 2010, the Athens-based J & J Chemical Co. warehouse caught fire just after midnight.  Athens Clarke County (ACC) firefighters responded as exploding chemical barrels shot into the air.  They poured over 700,000 gallons of water on the conflagration before retreating and allowing the fire to burn itself out.  ACC fire inspectors believe the fire started as an electrical fire in the warehouse; the building is apparently considered a total loss.  This leaves more than two dozen employees out of work and a thirty-plus year old company with additional operations in Utah facing an uncertain future.  J & J Chemical Co. representatives have provided no public comment about the event.  So why do I impart information about the Athens chemical fire for GWW readers?

Toxic brew coming your way:  During and after the fire, toxic chemicals were released into the air and water.  The water used to douse the fire was originally reported to have mixed with glutaraldehyde, methanol, formaldehyde, para-dichlorobenzene, and blue dye used in potta-potty sanitation solution.  This toxic cocktail – described by one firefighter at the scene as a “lava flow” – turned Georgia’s usually brown waterways into an eerie and unnatural blue that continued to off-gas noxious fumes.  The blue toxic cocktail escaped from the warehouse property into an adjacent creek, the East Fork of Trail Creek, a Trail Creek wetland, and eventually the North Oconee River.  Everybody downstream – including Greensboro’s municipal water customers, anglers in Lakes Oconee and Sinclair, and folks who care about the Altamaha River – should pay attention to this toxic cocktail story.

What toxic brew?  A Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) spokesperson initially downplayed the environmental affects of spill, and Environmental Protection Division (EPD) officials offered measured restraint pending water quality test results.  ACC representatives offered little public comment for days.  When Athens and Trail Creek neighborhood residents detected a slow local and state response, they mobilized on their own.  Ben Emanuel, the Oconee River Project coordinator for the Altamaha Riverkeeper, organized a public listening session in conjunction with Athens Grow Green Coalition and the Upper Oconee Watershed Network to gather questions about public and environmental health that residents directed at ACC, EPD, J&J, and other agencies.

What we now know: Over 15,000 fish, clams, turtles, and other creatures have died in Trail Creek.  The fish did not die from a lack of oxygen as originally claimed.  They died from exposure to para-dichlorobenzene and formaldehyde.  As DNR fisheries supervisor Chris Martin declared: “There’s no fish that was able to survive that.”  The state has not seen a fish kill of these proportions since the early 1990s.  Local officials and J & J representatives have said nothing about clean-up and remediation plans.  Only EPD has hinted at that future.  As reported in the Athens Banner Herald, “Under EPD rules, the company responsible for a spill – not the state – is charged with assessing the damage and cleaning it up, though the work is performed under EPD supervision.”

A warning lesson:  What EPD can realistically do, however, will be hamstrung by budget cuts.  As one ACC Commissioner intimated in a Banner Herald article, the EPD’s emergency response staff has been eviscerated from twelve to four employees.  Days later, the Banner Herald’s editor observed what other Athens’ residents have learned: our legislators who dream of ‘small government’ were not thinking about public and environmental health when they mandated massive, across the board budget cuts.  GWW readers in communities across the state should not only be concerned about what’s happening in Athens and downstream, they should also be concerned about what budget cuts will mean for public and environmental health in coming years.  As the editor stated: “The thing about government services is that you don’t necessarily know what services you’re going to need, or want, until you need or want them.”  Right now, folks in Athens want DNR, EPD, and ACC to act on the behalf of the public good, and to hold J & J fully accountable to the letter of local, state, and federal laws.

What’s next?  GreenLaw attorney Justine Thompson, the Georgia River Network, the Altamaha Riverkeeper, Athens Grow Green, and the Upper Oconee Watershed Network have requested a meeting about this toxic spill and response with representatives from ACC, EPD, J & J, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to discuss improving communication, environmental restoration, and future response.  Read the GreenLaw letter and a consolidated list of the above mentioned questions posed by Athens residents.  There has been no response to this request.

Stay tuned and keep up with the latest news on the following site: Trail Creek Witness.

-Chris Manganiello (a Trail Creek neighborhood resident)


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