Report: Amrep fire leaked chemicals into neighborhood creek


Digging deep

After a May 23 explosion and fire destroyed a Marietta chemical warehouse, the AJC worked to determine whether dangerous substances were released into the air or water. Initially, authorities had assured the public that air monitoring did not detect any risk. But the AJC discovered that there was a four-hour delay in extensive air testing that might have detected toxic chemicals, and that neither firefighters nor state officials knew which toxic and hazardous chemicals were in the warehouse at the time. The AJC also found that the fire had resulted in a fish kill downstream from the warehouse, even though both Cobb’s fire department and the Environmental Protection Division had not detected contamination. Reports of the fish kill prompted an investigation by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Fish killed in Sope Creek

An estimated 9,590 fish were killed in Sope Creek, after a chemical fire at the Amrep chemical warehouse in Marietta. But that number is likely an undercount, according to a report from the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Because water in the creek was murky and jammed at points with woody debris, observers could not detect all the dead fish. Other wildlife that died included crayfish and salamanders.

Species, estimated number

Bluegill sunfish, 2,944

Cyprinids, 1,992,

Darters, 1,717

Suckers, 1,140

Redbreast sunfish, 909

Green sunfish, 671

Bullhead, 58

Spotted bass, 51

Redear sunfish, 43

Largemouth bass, 29

Madtom, 22

Golden shiner, 7

Blackspotted topminnow, 7

Go to MyAJC.com to read the investigative report by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Toxic materials spilled into a nearby creek when a Marietta chemical warehouse went up in a hellish blaze last month, killing thousands of fish for miles downstream.

As firefighters doused flames shooting hundreds of feet into the air, something oily and pungent washed down a storm drain and into Sope Creek, which feeds into the Chattahoochee River, according to a state biologist’s report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The next day, the creek stank of chemicals and had a dark, oily residue along part of its stream bank. Fish lay belly up or struggled to swim.

“You can imagine, whatever might have been burning in that facility potentially washed down the drain and into the creek,” said the report’s author, biologist James Hakala of the state Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division.

Yet authorities kept assuring the public that nothing lethal seeped out of Amrep, an aerosol products producer, when flames and explosions consumed one of its warehouses the night of May 23. Even a week after the fire, a state environmental official was quoted by a local television station saying toxic materials didn’t kill the fish, but rather they were suffocated by all the water from firefighting.

Hakala’s report says just the opposite: Chemicals killed an estimated 9,600 fish over almost six miles of Sope Creek.

It’s unclear whether Amrep’s store of toxic chemicals was responsible, or if the culprit was firefighting foam, or a combination of the two.

The creek contamination highlights a vulnerability to surrounding populations when industrial sites go up in flames and smoke. While there have been no reports of humans falling ill, and the state Environmental Protection Division says it took steps to protect the drinking water supply, air and water testing didn’t start until hours after the first reports of the fire.

That was because the first firefighters on the scene were more worried about heptane and butane pressurized tanks just outside the warehouse exploding, a review by the AJC found. Emergency crews went door to door evacuating businesses within a mile’s radius of the warehouse, as well as emptying a nearby soccer arena and the sports fields at The Walker School.

The Marietta Fire Department still hasn’t determined what caused the fire and the multiple explosions, mainly because the evidence was incinerated, Commander Tim Milligan said. No one was inside the building when the blaze started, he said.

The facility off Cobb Parkway stores a long list of combustible and toxic chemicals known to cause cancer, damage central nervous systems, harm fetuses or irritate lungs and eyes.

Amrep’s parent company, Zep Inc., did not respond to questions Tuesday about what specific chemicals were stored in the building that burned, or what led to the fire, releasing only a prepared statement by Bob Collins, vice president and chief administrative officer.

“It would be premature to comment on the situation,” the statement said, “until all investigations, including the one we are conducting, are complete and we have had the chance to review their conclusions.”

Sope Creek runs through residential areas before spilling into the Chattahoochee. In his report, Hakala, of wildlife resources, described a foul smell at several points along the creek.

“The best thing I can describe it as, it smelled like a cleaner, almost like a detergent smell,” he said.

He also noted dead crayfish, salamanders, tadpoles and earthworms. He tested oxygen and acidity levels and found nothing so off kilter as to kill fish, pointing instead toward chemicals.

The state Environmental Protection Division had pointed to oxygen depletion, from too much water runoff, as the likely cause of the fish kill.

A few hours after the fire started, it tested water in the creek and didn’t detect hazardous chemicals. Later, an EPD official told a local TV station about the agency’s findings. But that news report didn’t tell the whole story, Compliance Director Bert Langley said.

“That sounds like we’re saying the fish drowned. That’s not what happened,” he said. “Obviously, the kill was as a result of material getting into the stream through the firefighting.”

Langley said the firefighting foam may have been to blame. Though the product’s safety report shows it’s not expected to be harmful to aquatic life, he said it could still deplete oxygen levels. He said other culprits could have been building materials that washed down from the warehouse or pent-up sludge in a retention pond.

Langley noted that EPD tested the water a few hours after the fire started and found lower oxygen levels than Hakala found the next day.

Hakala, however, said even EPD’s readings weren’t low enough kill to fish.

DNR puts the loss of fish at $4,800 and investigative costs at $4,000 — sums that could be lumped into fines levied against the company.

The uncertainty about what sullied the creek has frustrated residents who live near it. In East Cobb’s Weatherstone subdivision, residents have been swapping information and supposition over Facebook.

Sope Creek is a popular play spot for neighborhood children, especially in summer. Greg Gilbert, who can see the creek bank from his office room window, said he’s been telling people to stay out of the water until at least three more major rains.

“If it’s bad enough that it’s killing wildlife, you’d think they’d let people know that live near the creek,” Gilbert said. “I’d love to hear something from the state about what they recommend, rather than just coming from us.”

Langley said EPD has issued no such advisories because it always recommends staying out of urban streams due to fecal matter.

He also said there are no plans for further testing of Sope Creek or the Chattahoochee. Even though toxic materials undoubtedly made it into the river, they’re long gone now, he said.

Jason Ulseth, a technical programs director for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said additional testing is needed. But then, such testing is already insufficient in Georgia, he said.

“That’s generally the way things are done across the state, because the less problems are identified, the less problems have to be remedied,” Ulseth said. “Generally, that’s been the mentality for water quality monitoring statewide. There’s just not enough water quality monitoring taking place to ensure that the quality of our water is meeting the standards that we expect.”

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