Hartsfield-Jackson fined $40,000 for jet fuel spill into Flint River

Airport agrees to consent order with state regulators

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional comment from the airport.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport faces a $40,000 fine for a fuel spill last year that killed fish along more than two miles of the Flint River.

The failure of two of four bolts that held a fuel pit drain valve resulted in the discharge of hundreds of gallons of jet fuel into the river, according to an investigation by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD). The airport had “insufficient procedures” for preventive maintenance of the fuel pits, according to a consent order recently agreed to between the airport and the state. The Atlanta City Council transportation committee on Wednesday voted to authorize payment of the fine.

The Flint River’s headwaters are just north of the world’s busiest airport, and it flows underneath Hartsfield-Jackson and then hundreds of miles to southwest Georgia into Lake Seminole.

Early on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, an airport fuel contractor contacted the National Response Center to report a roughly 600-gallon jet fuel spill. Later estimates ultimately pegged it at 1,300 gallons. Airport personnel “reported that the fuel covered a football field-wide area” before reaching storm drains, according to a federal Environmental Protection Agency report.

Contractors worked to contain the spill but it reached the Flint, covering the surface of the river south of the airport with an oily sheen, killing fish and generating a strong odor of jet fuel in the area. More than 200 dead fish were found in a sample, including darters, minnows, redbreast sunfish and bullhead catfish, according to a state fish kill report.

The City of Griffin, which pulls drinking water from the Flint, raised concerns about not getting notifications about the spill until three days after it occurred.

Using absorbent boom and skimmers, “It took us about a month to sop up all the fuel in the Flint River,” said Hartsfield-Jackson General Manager Balram Bheodari on Wednesday.

Airport officials acknowledged shortfalls in the wake of the incident.

“We have taken a comprehensive evaluation and inspection on all of our fuel pits to ensure that any of these deficiencies are corrected,” Bheodari said.

The state EPD enforces the Georgia Water Quality Control Act, which allows civil penalties of up to $50,000 per day for an initial violation. The consent order says the director of Georgia EPD, Richard Dunn, “has determined that an amicable disposition of the alleged violations set forth herein is in the best interest of the citizens of the State of Georgia,” and is resolving the allegations with the consent order.

The airport’s alleged violations include improper maintenance and inspections to prevent spills, failure to fully monitor the discharge, improper documentation of storm event data and discharges.

A site map also incorrectly identified piped portions of the Flint River and Sullivan Creek as storm sewer, according to the consent order. Separately, the airport in past years did not properly sample for bacteria.

In addition to the $40,000 fine, the consent order says the airport must update its Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan to include procedures for preventive maintenance, update its water quality monitoring requirements and correct its maps on all state waters, creeks and streams and potential pollutants.