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An environmental lesson for Georgia

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POSTED: October 11, 2010 10:19 a.m.

It’s been two months since the day of a massive fire at J&J Chemical Co. in Athens and a large spill of dangerous chemicals into a stream feeding the Oconee River. A sickly sweet odor still hangs in the air along Trail Creek, and an unnatural turquoise tint still colors the water.
Cleanup workers are laboring to reduce the stubbornly persistent chemical load in the stream. Concentrations of formaldehyde and other chemicals have mostly dissipated along with the water’s alarming bright blue color, but dichlorobenzene levels are still falling only slowly.
The book isn’t closed on this spill, but those aren’t the only reasons why. In addition to the full remediation of Trail Creek, the Athens community and our entire state still need a lot of answers about this incident. We all need assurances that procedures are being examined and adjusted for the “next time” that we hope doesn’t come.
For some, the key line of questioning revolves around the fire response: Is the appropriate response to apply a large volume of water to this type of chemical fire? It bears repeating that no one was hurt or killed by the fire, and that it was not allowed to spread to neighboring industries.
The incredible work of the responders to this middle-of-the-night disaster cannot be underestimated. In terms of a public understanding of protocols, however, the question above has not necessarily been answered thoroughly.
Perhaps more important is this question: If emergency responders made a calculated and appropriate decision to apply water to the fire – weighing the various risks and unavoidable negative impacts from a range of tactical options – then why weren’t the known impacts of the chosen course communicated to those who would surely be affected downstream?
If, on Day One, officials on-site at J&J saw protective berms overwhelmed, and witnessed a so-called “river of fire” or “lava flow” of burning liquid traveling to a stream that runs just 4 miles into downtown Athens, why not adjust their response at some point to account for impacts off-site? And why was there no attempt to mitigate those impacts?
It was 15 days before there was any attempt by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to lessen chemical concentrations in the stream. Earlier action could have reduced the dangerous chemicals that flowed through backyards and parks for days on end. Why was there no immediate effort to reduce chemical concentrations from the outset?
The first week after the fire appears as a case study in a failed response to an environmental emergency, and it is not clear that public agencies are thoroughly taking the needed evident problems.
At Georgia EPD, a clumsy handoff from the Division’s Emergency Response team to its Hazardous Waste Management personnel left Athens with no state oversight of the spill from the evening of Friday, July 30 – when chemical concentrations probably hit their peak in the North Oconee River – on through the weekend.
Local officials were at a loss to answer basic questions usefully, lacking a better information flow with EPD. The interagency cooperation encouraged by well-developed nationally standardized response systems clearly did not take place. State officials’ guidance to avoid contact with the water in Trail Creek and the North Oconee River came slowly, and effective cautionary signage in public parks along Trail Creek came nearly a week after the fire.
Athens-Clarke County officials have identified several decision points at which things could have been handled better at the local level. The systems to make long-term fixes happen must be addressed in a public way, and we plan to continue this open, productive discussion with the local government with an eye toward improvements for the future. We hope fervently that state officials will engage in the same level of dialogue.
Make no mistake: the Altamaha Riverkeeper’s work to learn from this event goes on. As a state, we must assess all elements of the response so that all Georgians will be better prepared and protected in case of similar events in the future.
One thing is already very clear: properly supporting Georgia’s chronically under-funded EPD, even in tough fiscal times, and demanding accountability for its response to environmental emergencies, must become a priority in this state. We’re fortunate that the J&J fire and Trail Creek spill weren’t worse in their immediate, direct impact on people. But when it comes to preparedness, what better motivator do we need?

Emanuel is the Oconee River Project director for Altamaha Riverkeeper based in Athens and can be reached at oconee@altamahariverkeeper.org or (706) 340-8868.
Sheppard is ARK’s executive director based in Darien and can be reached at stewards@altmahariverkeeper.org or (912) 437-8164.

 

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