Trail Creek water, sediment no longer shows toxicity after 2010 spill

The water and sediments in Athens’ little Trail Creek no longer seems fatal to life nearly three years after a massive chemical fire at the J&J Chemical Co. caused a spill that killed everything in the creek and flushed a toxic tide of acid-blue pollution into the Oconee River, according to a University of Georgia scientist.

But life has been slow to return to the little stream, which empties into the Middle Oconee River at Dudley Park near downtown Athens.
When UGA toxicologist Marsha Black and some of her students tested Trail Creek days after the spill using a standard protocol for toxicity testing approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, they found the water was toxic to a water flea.
By the following April, the water wasn’t toxic, but sediments in some places contained toxins, according to tests conducted by Black and her students. In those tests, they mixed lab water with the sediment and then subjected the water fleas to various dilutions of sediment and water.
Last fall, a little more than two years after the spill, the tests Black and her students ran on sediment samples showed no toxic effects on the little creatures, Black said in a presentation last week at the Georgia Water Resources Conference.
The two-day conference, held every other year, brings together scientists, regulators and other water professionals from Georgia and nearby states.
Although firefighters usually pour foam on chemical fires, Athens firefighters pumped somewhere between 500,000 gallons and 1.5 million gallons of water on the July 28, 2010, fire at the chemical company on East Athens’ Trans Tech Drive. The burning building contained barrels of chemicals used to make toilet bowl disinfectant and other products, and the drums were destroyed in the blaze.
As they fell apart, the firefighters’ water carried formaldehyde, dichlorobenzene, glutaraldehyde and other heavy-duty toxins into the stream, along with a brilliant blue dye that turned Trail Creek toilet-bowl blue for miles downstream, killing an estimated 15,000 fish, turtles and other creatures.
While Black and her students didn’t find evidence of toxicity in their water and sediment sampling in Trail Creek last September, neither they nor members of a volunteer stream protection group found any actual macroinvertebrate life such as worms and small insects or crustaceans.
However, volunteers with the Upper Oconee Watershed Network have subsequently found some macroinvertebrate life, Black and a UOWN member told conference attendees.
Athens-Clarke officials and other observers faulted the state Environmental Protection Division for its slow response to the spill. Public officials and residents leveled similar criticisms against the agency a year later, when a factory’s chemical release killed thousands of fish in the Ogeechee River in south Georgia.
Since then, state legislators introduced a bill designed to improve the EPD’s emergency response, said Ben Emanuel of American Rivers. Emanuel was an Athens resident at the time of the J&J fire and helped coordinate a community response to the Trail Creek spill.
The bill didn’t pass this year, but will be alive when the next session begins in January 2014, he said.

Original article published in the Athens Banner Herald.

– Lee Shearer

Posted April 13, 2013.