In 1964, the federal government considered placing buoys in Lake Lanier to warn recreational users to avoid a contaminated area where Flat Creek flows into the lake.
At the time, a local health official cautioned lake users to avoid the mouth of Flat Creek for a “reasonable distance” out into the lake, as a Gainesville work crew cleared the creek banks of “piles of waste from chicken processing plants that have overloaded the city’s sewage treatment plant on the creek.” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 3, 1964)
The federal Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, requires that pollution sources such as Gainesville’s sewage plant and the chicken plants upgrade their treatment systems to meet specific standards. In many places, significant funds were invested and most waterways are cleaner today.
But, Flat Creek, a 6-mile tributary that flows through Gainesville and is the focus of a new city greenspace program, is still polluted with high levels of bacteria when it rains. The stream flows through city neighborhoods, near schools and churches before entering Lake Lanier, which provides drinking water for 4 million people and is visited by 7.5 million people annually.
In 2009, a concerned resident called Chattahoochee Riverkeeper after seeing dead fish floating in Flat Creek. We contacted the state, which found more than 100 dead fish and “gray-colored sludge, floating debris and putrescent foam entering the creek below the outfalls from the (Pilgrim’s Pride) facility.”
A review of state files then revealed years of polluted stormwater flowing from the Pilgrim’s Pride facility, but Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division allowed the company to continue to just monitor the problem and not fix it. Multiple complaints were made by CRK to the EPD following the fish kill with no resolution.
In 2012, CRK sent letters to Pilgrim’s local and corporate offices detailing our concerns and asking for resolution, but never received a reply.
In response, we began to monitor water quality in Flat Creek at strategic locations in the vicinity of Pilgrim’s Pride and Mar-Jac Poultry, another potential source of the contamination, using EPD quality assured protocols and a certified laboratory. Together, these two facilities process several million chickens per week. As the years passed, we continued to collect water data, which showed astronomically high levels of E. coli flowing into the creek rain after rain.
In January 2014, we invited the president of the powerful Georgia Poultry Federation to our office to discuss the pollution data from Flat Creek. He was polite and cordial, but ultimately unresponsive to our concerns.
Six months later, in July 2014, CRK and city of Gainesville employees conducted a routine investigation along Flat Creek and discovered an illegal discharge of bloody water and chicken guts into the creek from Mar-Jac’s stormwater outfall. The company stopped the illegal discharge, but then failed to notify state regulators as required.
A month later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted surprise investigations at the two plants on Flat Creek and released its reports this spring, citing multiple clean water violations.
The Pilgrim’s Pride report describes trucks with thousands of chickens in cages being sprayed with water that mingles with chicken feces and then drains directly into Flat Creek, storm drain pipes with chicken feathers and maggots, and insufficient employee training and pollution prevention planning.
The Mar-Jac report cites the facility for their failure to report the July 2014 spill and for deficiencies in their pollution prevention plans.
Years of water quality data and a comprehensive investigation conducted by EPA have confirmed that polluted stormwater flowing from Pilgrim’s Pride and Mar-Jac Poultry are contributing to a public health threat. Enforcement actions are anticipated.
Why did it take decades and a significant investment of resources by a nonprofit organization and the U.S. EPA to bring this matter to some resolution — when Georgia’s EPD has a duty to have prevented it’s ever happening in the first place?
The people of Georgia deserve an honest answer to this question.
Jason Ulseth is Riverkeeper for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an environ-mental advocacy group.