Jet fuel spill into Flint River requires no public notice, officials say

The Flint River just south of Hartsfield-Jackson.

The Flint River just south of Hartsfield-Jackson.

Some people who work and live just south of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport noticed a strong odor of jet fuel permeating the area and spotted clean-up crews at the Flint River.

It turned out there had been a 700-gallon jet fuel spill at the airport Sept. 26. But neighbors didn’t find that out from state officials or anyone at Hartsfield-Jackson. Officials say there is no requirement to notify the public when such spills occur.

“It’s upsetting,” Hannah Palmer said of the spill, which killed some of the river’s fish. In 2017, she and others started the organization Finding the Flint, which is dedicated to restoring the river and promoting its use.

“It’s not just the fish that we’re talking about and the water quality,” Palmer said. “It’s the quality of life for those people who live along these streams. It smells.”

State legislation passed in 2014 requires that the airport and other businesses notify Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division if there’s a spill that could endanger the health or property of downstream users of the water.

But, EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said in an email, that agency doesn’t have to inform the public of the spill.

To be specific, state law leaves it up to the EPD to determine if there is a threat to health or property. If there is, officials then “determine if it is necessary to prepare and distribute a public notice concerning such threat,” or if any evacuations are necessary.

Clayton County and the City of Griffin both have drinking water systems that have intakes on the Flint River. Clayton shut down the intake. Brant Keller, the director of watershed management for Griffin, said he was not notified of the spill until Wednesday, though it didn’t cause damage.

“I’m responsible for a lot of people’s public health and safety. As far as I’m concerned, it was a pretty serious mistake that they don’t have protocol in place to let people know,” he said.

Hartsfield-Jackson had a spill of about 1,000 gallons of fuel in 2017. A year earlier, a larger discharge of 4,500 gallons at the airport caused fuel to spill into Sullivan Creek and the Flint River, Georgia Health News reported.

“It’s just so normalized,” said Palmer, who lives in East Point. “It’s tragic because it symbolizes how we treat the southside downstream community.”

Another nasty, smelly fuel spill from the airport into the Flint River. I know the airlines don’t like dumping money...

Posted by Finding the Flint on Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Flint River has its headwaters near Delta Air Lines’ corporate offices just north of Hartsfield-Jackson. It flows underneath the airport, then to southwest Georgia into Lake Seminole. Officially, there is no public access to the river north of Fayetteville, according to Finding the Flint. But Palmer said some people do access the river from metro Atlanta areas just south of the city. Farther down in South Georgia, people kayak and fish along the Flint.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the health effects of Jet A — the type of fuel spilled at Hartsfield-Jackson — and other jet fuels “depend on how much of these fuels you are exposed to and for how long.”

“We know very little about the human health effects” of jet fuel exposure, the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Research and Disease Registry says in a public health statement. People who accidentally ingest kerosene, which has a similar composition to Jet A, “were reported as suffering harmful effects on the respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract and nervous system,” causing “coughing, difficulty breathing, abdominal pain and vomiting, drowsiness, restlessness and convulsions.”

Waterways need to be better protected, Palmer said. She plans to continue efforts to open portions of the upper headwaters of the Flint to public access.

When people don’t frequent the river and creeks, she said, “they don’t see the pollution. They don’t smell the jet fuel. They don’t understand the environmental damage.”

Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers agrees that more needs to be done to ensure the water is kept clean. “We’re not just talking about people swimming and fishing,” he said. “Perhaps a wider-reaching and more important thing is providing safe drinking water to literally hundreds of thousands in southwest metro Atlanta.”