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Norfolk Southern faces daily fine if it doesn’t clean soybeans out of Flat Creek
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A portion of Flat Creek in Gainesville is blocked and drained Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, as cleanup continues after soybeans spilled into the Gainesville creek. - photo by Scott Rogers

The Department of Natural Resources’ Environmental Protection Division has ordered Norfolk Southern to remove soybeans from Flat Creek under threat of penalties up to $50,000 per day.

In a letter sent Wednesday, Aug. 17,The EPD states that the soybeans that have piled up in Flat Creek and lowered the oxygen levels in the water came from a July 29 Norfolk Southern train derailment.

A Norfolk Southern train servicing the Cargill plant had three rail cars derail, including at least one carrying soybeans.

A Norfolk Southern spokesman reiterated that the company’s efforts were made “on our own accord” before any regulatory citations.

“(Norfolk Southern) and our contractors responded immediately and worked to contain and remove the spilled material. There was no impact to Flat Creek at that time,” Norfolk Southern said in a statement. “On Friday, Aug. 12, we were made aware of soybean material in Flat Creek about a mile away from the site of the derailment. We have a dedicated staff of environmental experts and contractors with experience in these types of incidents, and immediately responded to assist. That effort has been ongoing since Friday, and we’ll continue to work with our state partners to identify the source of the material and remove it from the creek. It’s important to note that soybeans are not hazardous, though do decompose over time similar to other organic material.”

In a previous statement to The Times, Norfolk Southern said that the company and its contractors “worked quickly to clean-up the spilled product following last month's derailment and determined that the spill was contained to Norfolk Southern property.”

According to the “notice of violation” letter sent Wednesday, EPD representatives saw three derailed hopper cars Aug. 16 in the headwaters of Flat Creek.

“Soybeans were observed in the derailed hopper cars, under the hopper cars and soybeans in various stages of decomposition adjacent to derailed hopper cars along the bank of Flat Creek,” according to EPD’s letter.

The water downstream, however, was murky and gray, and soybeans were found in the water and along the bank, according to the letter.

Becca Risser, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper headwaters watershed specialist, said there were at least 40 dead fish last week and saw more dead fish this week.

Risser said she is still getting readings for dissolved oxygen in the water below the 5 milligrams per liter standard. In the worst spots, the readings are still below 1 milligram per liter.

The water in Flat Creek from Cargill to the derailed cars was clear and soybean-free.

Marion Environmental, a contractor for Norfolk Southern, has been removing soybeans.

Risser said the cleanup method involves a pump sucking out the soybeans and water, running that through a filter and returning the water into the creek.

EPD directed Norfolk Southern to “continue the removal of soybeans and provide aeration for Flat Creek until all recoverable soybeans are removed and the dissolved oxygen is above 5 (milligrams per liter) for a period of seven consecutive days.”

“Please be aware that these violations can result (in) monetary penalties of up to $50,000 per day, per violation and that pending enforcement may follow,” according to the letter.

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A HEPCO Inc. employee vacuums water and soybeans from Flat Creek Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, where a large amount was spilled into the Gainesville creek. - photo by Scott Rogers