Creek recovers from contamination following chemical spill

By Briana Gerdeman

 

On a recent sunny Saturday, the Oconee River drew a small crowd of people to enjoy the water and the weather. Kids and preteens waded in the river, climbing from rock to rock, while their parents watched from the side. Students lounged in groups or played frisbee. Pet owners let their dogs run free.

No one seemed concerned about a chemical spill last summer that contaminated Trail Creek, a tributary of the Oconee River. Now, as the weather warms up and people begin to use Trail Creek and the North Oconee River again, it’s still not certain whether water quality is back to normal.

Government officials say the water is clean again, but others who have examined the creek say the effects of the spill are still present. The answer may depend on how the creek’s health is measured.

A fire at J&J Chemical Company in July 2010 spilled blue dye and several toxic chemicals into Trail Creek, which flows into the North Oconee River at Dudley Park. The chemical plant produced restroom deodorizers, graffiti removers, and other products, according to published reports. A representative from J&J Chemical Company said the owner was out of town and could not comment.

The dye was harmless, but the chemicals were not. They included possible cancer-causing substances and a highly toxic substance that attacks the central nervous system, according to published reports. The contamination killed an unknown number of fish and other aquatic life, and J&J Chemical Company paid a $15,000 settlement to the state of Georgia. Although the Oconee River didn’t suffer much contamination, because the water flowing into it from Trail Creek was diluted, the creek was more severely affected.

After testing the water in November 2010, the Georgia EPD determined that all chemicals are gone from Trail Creek, said Kevin Chambers, a representative from the Environmental Protection Division. The EPD recommended that caution signs warning people and pets to stay out of Trail Creek could be taken down.

Mike Rodock, stormwater supervisor for the Athens EPD, also said the creek is no longer toxic.

“There definitely was an impact to the stream,” after the fire, he said. But “since that time, sampling has shown no further contamination.”

But others who have worked with the creek had a different assessment than government officials.

“It’s not back to normal yet,” said Ben Emanuel, the Oconee River project director for the Altamaha Riverkeeper. Contamination levels are acceptable by state water quality standards, he said, but organisms living in the stream have not recovered. He said he wouldn’t recommend eating fish caught from the creek.

So far, most of the improvement in water quality has come through natural processes, he said. The creek was also cleaned through human interventions – pumping water through carbon filters to remove chemicals, and a process known as “air sparging” in which the water is oxygenated to break down the chemicals.

Marsha Black, an associate professor in the department of environmental health science and assistant dean in the College of Public Health, also said the creek had not fully recovered. She took sediment samples from Trail Creek with her Water Pollution class and some graduate students. In December 2010, they still found “significant toxicity” in Trail Creek.

The samples still had a blue color and a characteristic odor, Black said. When water fleas were placed in samples of running water from the creek, the water wasn’t toxic, but when the water fleas were placed in water gathered from the sediments of the creek, they were killed by the water. She said the chemicals may linger in the sediments until they are broken down by normal processes or removed by cleanup efforts.

“The question of recovery depends what measure of recovery you’re looking at,” Emanuel said. “It still smells a little bit, and sometimes it looks a little blue.”

Rodock said the EPD’s sampling tested for water to meet quality standards, not whether or not it harmed aquatic life.

As for human safety in the creek, Black said people would still be exposed to chemicals that remain in the sediments, but exposure to skin would probably not be harmful.

But contamination in the sediments could affect aquatic life in the creek, she said. Fish and invertebrates lay eggs in the sediments, and invertebrates often live in the sediments.

“For the life of the stream, sediments are where things happen,” she said.

Black said she hopes spring will help fish and other aquatic life reestablish themselves as tributaries bring them back into the creek.

 

Chemicals that contaminated the Trail Creek after the fire included:

  • Methanol, which can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, confusion or death due to its effects on the central nervous system when it is inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin.
  • Paradichlorobenzene, a pesticide and disinfectant that can cause vomiting and may cause cancer.
  • Formaldehyde, used as a disinfectant and in making plastics and resins, that can cause allergies and is known to cause cancer.
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