Some of the “dozens” of dead fish found by Joe Cook of the Coosa River Basin Initiative just east of Hwy. 9 in Flat Creek. (Photo by Joe Cook)

Investigation continues at Gold Creek Foods

The 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.

“Nothing new,” Chambers said in an email on Sunday. The investigation “is ongoing” according to the rest of the message. A statement released by Gold Creek Foods Vice President Michael Sheets on March 28, stated that “The cleanup is going very well based on the responses of the regulatory agencies–the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the United States Environmental Protection Agency–and based on the independent environmental remediation company and our own internal safety teams.”

The statement was released in the interest of keeping the public and the community updated on the cleanup process and a desire to communicate the latest developments in the “accidental release of a water treatment solution” which has since been determined to be ferric chloride. The chemical is used to treat the plant’s wastewater before it is released into Dawsonville’s wastewater system.

An employee was driving a forklift around 4 a.m. March 20 at the poultry processing facility on Hwy. 9 North and accidentally punctured a 55-gallon drum of ferric chloride. Gold Creek Foods stated that measures were previously taken to contain the spill but some managed to bypass the retention area and enter Flat Creek, behind Robinson Elementary School. Flat Creek feeds Shoal Creek and the Etowah River, both of which are habitat for threatened and endangered fish.
On March 22 city officials reported the contamination to the EPD after city utility employees discovered dead fish and the contamination. A press release from the city indicated that the city’s drinking water was not in danger of contamination. It also encouraged citizens to refrain from contact with Flat Creek stream water as a precautionary measure and to prohibit livestock from drinking it.

Sheets’ statement also addressed the Robinson Elementary playground which had been off limits to students. “Results are in from testing of the playground at the school, which is not only clear of any material, it was never affected,” it read. “Safety measures the company put in place in 2013 ensured that area was not impacted.”

The EPA is satisfied with the ongoing remediation efforts, according to Sheets, and Gold Creek Foods has been working side-by-side with the Georgia EPD on all efforts to address the situation. “Testing in the creek area is showing that all pH levels are at or near the normal range, but we will stay at work and continue testing until we are sure these results don’t change over time,” Sheets said.

Joe Cook, advocacy and communication coordinator for the Coosa River Basin Initiative visited the impacted area of the Etowah River tributary. He reported that “Coosa River Basin Initiative (CRBI) has reviewed the Gold Creek Foods storm water monitoring reports for 2017 and is seeking to obtain a copy of the facility’s Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP),” he said in an email to Smoke Signals. “Our initial investigation suggests that EPD had not adequately reviewed the SWPPP or inspected the site recently. EPD does not have a copy of the SWPPP on file and has not inspected the site in the past five years, according to CRBI correspondence with EPD.”

According to Cook, Gold Creek Foods is required to monitor storm water washing off its facility and report the findings of those tests to EPD four times annually. The company’s 2017 reports show that it “exceeded benchmarks for total suspended solids on five of twelve monitoring events and had extremely high levels of fecal coliform leaving its facility during one monitoring event in June.”

Despite these findings which would normally trigger an evaluation and corrective actions, Gold Creek Foods told EPD that it their controls were working and that in 2018 they planned to conduct just one storm water monitoring event instead of four. The company is also required to have in place safeguards that would prevent a spill from reaching nearby streams. It appears that if these safeguards were in place they failed and that the internal emergency response was not adequate to stem the flow of the chemical, according to Cook.

“This tragedy is the symptom of a much larger problem,” Cook said. “There are thousands of industrial facilities that release storm water to our streams during rain events. From metal manufacturing facilities to chicken processing plants to auto salvage yards, there are some 2,000 industrial facilities across the state for which storm water pollution prevention plans are supposed to be in place.”

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