Environmentalists: Timely alerts needed when airport toxins enter river

A fuel spill from Hartsfield-Jackson that reached the Flint River has raised concerns
Gordon Rogers, Riverkeeper and Executive Director of Flint Riverkeeper, drives a boat on the Flint River near the Decatur/Mitchell County line in 2019. Rogers says that on the Flint, "you’re seeing so much biology, so much life right in front of your face, that it’s just stunning.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Gordon Rogers, Riverkeeper and Executive Director of Flint Riverkeeper, drives a boat on the Flint River near the Decatur/Mitchell County line in 2019. Rogers says that on the Flint, "you’re seeing so much biology, so much life right in front of your face, that it’s just stunning.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Just after midnight on September 26, the fire department and fuel farm manager at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport rushed to an emergency on the ramp outside of Gate C-14.

Due to a broken piece of equipment, jet fuel was gushing out onto the ground, and workers were hurrying to try to stop its spread. But the holding tanks used to capture such spills — and prevent them from leaving airport grounds — were full of rainwater. So, despite their efforts, the fuel reached a storm drain.

By the next day, it started showing up in the Flint River, which flows underneath the airport before snaking all the way down to South Georgia. The state Environmental Protection Division initially estimated 400 gallons had escaped. That was enough to kill fish. Then, airport officials said it was actually 700 gallons. By Oct 3, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it had collected at least 1,300 gallons from the river and added that the full amount remained unknown. This week, there was still a visible sheen on parts of the river, the EPA said.

In the midst of all that, the city of Griffin kept pulling from the Flint to supply drinking water to nearly 100,000 people there and in nearby communities. Under guidelines set up by state law, the spill wasn’t deemed a danger to downstream residents, which meant that Griffin watershed management director Brant Keller wasn’t alerted until three days after the equipment mishap.

Keller and environmentalists say that’s a problem. There needs to be a better way for people who use the Flint to find out when contaminants from the airport end up in the river, they say.

“I’m responsible for a lot of people’s public health and safety,” said Keller. They “ought to have to report it.”

State law requires companies that spill fuel or other hazardous materials to notify the Georgia Environmental Protection Division immediately. The EPD and other state officials then determine if there is a health threat that warrants a public notice.

But there’s disagreement about what amount constitutes a threat and how wide the notification should be. And often, as with the September 26 spill, the full extent of contamination could go unknown for days. That’s especially true at the airport, because the river runs under it.

Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia, said there should be a system to alert the public about all spills, even when it’s unclear how large the discharges are. By the time accurate estimates are made, the contaminants have already flowed down the river, unknown to those who use the water, she said.

Southern Environmental Law Center staff attorney April Lipscomb agrees. “They almost always underestimate how much of any material is spilled, and the final update is often much higher,” she said. “There’s way too much lag time.”

“The law doesn’t really contemplate how quickly these materials can move from the airport downstream.”

“A throbbing ecosystem”

Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers describes the waterway he oversees as a “throbbing ecosystem,” winding through Georgia and providing a home for fish, ducks, amphibians, reptiles and mollusks, as well as food and water source for deer, turkeys, raccoons and possum.

“When you immerse yourself in the Flint River ecosystem,” he said, “you get the same vibe as if you were in Yellowstone or in the Grand Tetons or some of those other panoramic places where you’re seeing so much biology, so much life right in front of your face, that it’s just stunning.”

The Flint also a source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people in Clayton County, the city of Griffin and other areas.

Griffin sells drinking water to Spalding County, Pike County and three small towns there, and parts of Coweta and Meriwether counties. “If it had been a major spill, I would have been sucking in whatever pollutant was discharged,” Keller said.

The Flint River

Credit: Mapbox

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Credit: Mapbox

Federal regulation on oil discharges classifies those of less than 1,000 gallons into inland waters as minor, and 1,000-10,000 as medium. Major discharges are those over 10,000 gallons or anything that’s a substantial threat to public health or the environment.

But size isn’t always the determinant.

“Quite honestly, anything is going to have an impact. The question becomes how widespread is the impact, how far downstream does it travel and, in many cases, how many fish does it kill?” said Ben Emanuel, clean water supply director at American Rivers.

A number of factors, such as rainfall and the flow of the river, also play a part in how detrimental a spill becomes.

There have been at least nine fuel spills at Hartsfield-Jackson since 2016, many of them small, according to Georgia EPD’s database.

“Anytime there’s a spill, it’s going to take a certain amount of time for the river to recover,” Lipscomb said. “By the time the river recovers, there’s another spill. We’re having these prolonged issues, and we’re not allowing the river to thrive as it should.”

The Sept. 26 fuel spill started with a broken piece inside a pressurized fueling system. The airport collects the first 1/10 of an inch of runoff, which can include contaminants from the tarmac, in large holding tanks for sanitary sewage treatment. But those tanks are supposed to be pumped out after each rainfall to prepare for the next storm or overflow.

“Inspection of the tanks after the recent fuel spill determined they had not been adequately prepared prior to the spill,” Hartsfield-Jackson said in a written statement.

Once the fuel went into storm drains, it made its way through the 4,700-acre airport’s extensive storm water system. That, combined with a slow flow rate, meant “the fuel did not appear at certain collection points in the Flint River until hours and days after the discharge,” according to EPA.

The Flint has its headwaters just north of the airfield and flows through southwest Georgia into Lake Seminole on the Florida border.

The Flint River begins just north of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and a portion of it — marked here as a dotted line through the right-center of the airport — flows beneath it. (Finding the Flint)

Credit: Finding the Flint

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Credit: Finding the Flint

When there’s a spill at Hartsfield-Jackson, officials there assume responsibility for notifying “the next intake downstream” — the Clayton County Water Authority — though the airport isn’t required to, an airport spokesman said.

The City of Griffin, however, has a water pump station farther downstream from the airport, roughly 29 miles away.

Georgia EPD says it notifies any intake users 10 miles or less downstream from a spill as a precaution. But that’s not far enough, Keller said. He pointed out that, in 2011, a chemical spill into the Ogeechee river killed fish about 75 miles downstream from the spill.

Griffin watershed management director Brant Keller says that he wasn’t alerted to the fuel spill into the Flint River until three days after the equipment mishap. (Courtesy of Brant Keller)

Credit: Source: Brant Keller

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Credit: Source: Brant Keller

In the wake of the fuel spill last month, Keller is considering buying devices that detect when water pH levels are off. He expects the new detection devices will likely cost “a pretty good chunk of change” — perhaps $50,000 total — but thinks it worth it because he can’t count on being notified of spills.

Right now, if there were a significant fuel discharge that reached Griffin’s Still Branch Reservoir, “I would never know it until I see fish floating,” he said.

Protecting public, natural resources

Since 2014, state law has required that companies and others that spill hazardous materials notify the Georgia EPD if there’s an endangerment to the health or property of downstream users.

The agency then works with state, federal and local officials to determine, using an Emergency Response Guidebook, if there is enough of a threat to justify warning the public or evacuating an area.

“Unfortunately, there is a lot of discretion and sort of gray area in the law,” Lipscomb said. “There’s just a lot of judgment call there.”

Rogers, the Flint Riverkeeper, is among those who think the public should be notified of all fuel spills, regardless of the size. “That would be the right way to do it,” he said. “That’s what good neighbors do.”

Gordon Rogers, seen here in 2019, says that the public should be notified of all fuel spills, regardless of the size. “That would be the right way to do it,” he said. “That’s what good neighbors do.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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Gayer, with Environment Georgia, said there was debate before the law passed about whether there should be automatic public notification when a spill occurs.

“You want to design a response that is not verging on crying wolf, but you also want to design a response that does actually protect our natural resources and our public health,” Gayer said. “It sounds like we are obviously not doing that in the case of the airport.”

She said the Sept. 26 fuel spill and the evolving estimates of its size show “that this is a complex undertaking, but also not an impossible undertaking.”

“Maybe this exposes the need to go back and address some of the emergency response requirements that we have in the Georgia code,” Gayer said. “How do we make sure that the public is aware of what’s going on and could hold these entities accountable to protect our natural resources?”

Over the last 10 years, the state EPD said, the agency has not levied any penalties against the airport for fuel spills. That’s because they were properly remediated and “did not have any documented adverse impacts to the environment that warranted financial penalties,” according to EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers.

Lipscomb thinks there should be more punishment when discharges happen.

“We have repeatedly seen EPD decline to issue penalties for polluters,” Lipscomb said. “EPD doesn’t issue penalties all that often. And, when they do issue penalties, they’re not very large.”

As it stands now, she said, “many businesses essentially think of penalties as a cost of doing business. And so, it ultimately doesn’t change behavior.”

AJC data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this article.