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Water quality experts: Drinking water never at risk from chemical fire
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Cleanup efforts continue at the former AFCO facility on Monroe Drive in Gainesville on Tuesday, March 13, 2018, after a chemical fire took place on Sunday, March 4, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

Local drinking water supplies were not compromised by the Monroe Drive chemical fire from earlier this month.

After the March 4 fire broke out at 2675 Monroe Drive, authorities warned residents to not use any water from Allen Creek until it was deemed safe. While the creek was cleared as safe a few days later, local water quality experts clarified on Thursday that Allen Creek is not part of the local water supply and that it doesn’t drain into Lake Lanier or the Chattahoochee River system.

The chemical fire has drawn a heavy response from Hall County Fire Services, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The cause of the fire remains unknown, according to Fire Services spokesman Capt. Zachary Brackett, who said on Thursday, March 16, the Hall County Fire Marshal’s Office continues to investigate but that cleaning up the site and containing any contamination remain the top priorities.

Trenches have been dug around the building, and the structure itself is being carefully demolished under the watch of EPD and the EPA. The building housed a cleaning, sanitizing, water management, food manufacturing and food safety consulting company named AFCO.

The list of chemicals contained in the structure ranged from inert to volatile and toxic, according to a fact sheet provided to The Times by EPD. While containment efforts were started on March 5, initial firefighting efforts to the blazing structure allowed water to drain from the property.

Subsequent water quality testing showed a higher pH than is normal in nearby Allen Creek, and officials warned residents to not use any water from the creek.

For any humans to drink from the creek, they would have to walk down to it and pull it straight from the stream, according to Linda MacGregor, director of the Gainesville Department of Water Resources.

“Gainesville provides most of the water in Hall County,” MacGregor said. “We withdraw water from Lake Lanier, and Allen Creek flows the opposite direction.”

There is very little chance anyone in Hall County interacts with the water in Allen Creek at all, she said, as it flows through Hall County and into the Oconee River, which drains not into the Gulf of Mexico with the Chattahoochee, but into the Atlantic Ocean.

Gainesville sits at an interesting geographical point, explained Dale Caldwell, headwaters director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, the environmental conservation group dedicated to the river system.

While they’re in completely different river systems, in Gainesville the Oconee and Chattahoochee systems are almost connected through Allen Creek and Flat Creek, which are only a few hundred yards away from each other.

“Where Oconee ends up near Brunswick, Georgia, and the Chattahoochee ends up in Apalachicola, Florida, if you were to drive ... that’s a good four hours. It’s several hundred miles away, and if you were to take a boat from one to the other you would have to go around the entire peninsula of Florida, but up here in Gainesville we’re talking about a matter of a minute or two.”

Had the chemical fire happened only a few streets away, emergency responders at the local, state and federal levels would have a far different problem on their hands. As it stands, Lake Oconee is the nearest large lake to Allen Creek and sits about 60 miles to the south.

Information about the cause of the fire will be reported as more details become available from Hall Fire Services.