Spill unlikely to go far down Oconee River

Early test results indicate that last week’s chemical spill into a tributary of the North Oconee River in Athens is unlikely to harm drinking water supplies or wildlife as far downstream as Lake Oconee or Milledgeville, state environmental regulators say.

In the aftermath of a vast fire at the J&J Chemical Co. on July 28, a mix of perfume oils, blue dye used in toilet bowl cleaner and various chemicals flowed into a creek feeding the Oconee. Residents complained of the strong odor, the bright blue color and foam at shoals in the river.

J&J hired HEPACO, an environmental emergency response contractor, to test the water, said Kevin Chambers, communications director for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Results showed unacceptable levels of formaldehyde and para-dichlorobenzene in the water of the Trail Creek and its branch, and fish died in both stretches, he said.

But the chemicals seemed to dissipate rapidly as they flowed downstream into the river, said Chambers. The EPD is working with the nearest downstream water provider, the city of Greensboro, but it does not expect water monitoring there to reveal problems, he added.

The EPD conducted its own water tests at six locations along the river Monday and expects the results Wednesday or Thursday, Chambers said.

When it comes to Lake Oconee and locations downstream, Chambers said, “We’re doing some modeling, but it’s highly unlikely any of it would reach that far ... and certainly not be a health concern.”

Chambers said EPD and state wildlife officials monitored the Oconee through the weekend and saw healthy big fish and turtles there.

Chambers said air quality testing found nothing that would cause long-term health effects, either.

Melissa Cummings, communications specialist for the wildlife resources division, said the fumes have had no visible effects on the wildlife in the Oconee.

Chambers said the chemicals can’t be skimmed off because the product was designed to dissolve in water. It breaks down in sunlight, but it is pooling in the shaded creeks nearest the plant and continues to sporadically release downstream to the river.

Chambers said the EPD does not yet have an estimate of how much chemical contamination occurred during the fire, which burned so intensely that it melted steel beams and took 1.5 million gallons of water before being extinguished.

Some Athens-area residents remain skeptical of the state’s conclusions and frustrated with the flow of information. According to the Athens Banner-Herald, more than 100 people attended a community meeting Monday night to make a list of their questions and concerns for the EPD.

Ben Emanuel, one of the meeting’s organizers, said he remains curious about the effects of the spill downstream and believes the EPD should have notified even more towns downstream of what might be headed their way.

“We’ve had a lot of trouble here getting information to local governments and the public that they can feel confident in,” said Emanuel, who is Oconee River project director for the Altamaha Riverkeeper advocacy organization. “There’s been a real downplaying of this by the state, even when they didn’t have much information yet.”

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.