Silent spill: Jet fuel reached river, but accident went almost unnoticed

Four months ago, a tanker truck carrying jet fuel hit a post at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, ripping open a valve.

Planes parked at Atlanta airport.
Planes parked at Atlanta airport.

Fuel spilled out onto the tarmac and flowed into a storm drain.

The early-morning accident occurred at the ramp level at Gate D41, but there was no aircraft at the gate then, airport officials say.

The spill posed a threat of fire and explosion, according to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Fortunately, those things did not occur. But the fuel, which has been linked to health problems if ingested, reached Sullivan Creek and the Flint River, south of the airport, according to the report.

“There was a strong kerosene odor present at the [freeway] overpasses’’ near the airport, the EPA report said. Dozens of minnows in the Flint were killed by the contamination.

The contractor initially reported that just 50 gallons of Jet A fuel had spilled. But that proved to be a significant underestimate.

Later, the spill was estimated at 4,500 gallons, which experts say counts as medium to large.

Rain made the cleanup problem more difficult. Water officials were alerted south of Atlanta in communities that draw from the Flint for drinking water.

The spill drew little if any public scrutiny. The accident apparently was not reported by local media. Even an airport spokesman, after a Georgia Health News query, said airport officials were initially given incorrect information by the company whose truck spilled the fuel.

Many waterway experts — including the Flint Riverkeeper, Gordon Rogers — were not aware of the jet fuel spill until they were contacted about it months later by Georgia Health News.

The incident reflects the spotty communications in Georgia when it comes to pollution incidents and the state’s waterways. Chris Manganiello, policy director of the Georgia River Network, says that with many spills and discharges, the public is often the last to know.

Lillies on the Upper Flint River. Photo from Flint Riverkeeper
Lilies on the Upper Flint River. Photo from Flint Riverkeeper

 The risks of toxic runoff

Many Georgia communities north of the “fall line’’ — which runs roughly midway through the state and divides the hilly Piedmont region from the coastal plain — get their drinking water from surface sources, including rivers.

Georgia River Basins
Georgia River Basins

As a whole, Georgia is home to 70,150 miles of streams and rivers and 425,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs, according to the Georgia Water Coalition. The state’s rivers and streams provide drinking water for millions of Georgia residents.

The Water Coalition, which publishes a “Dirty Dozen” list of the worst offenses to water each year, links the problems in part to what it calls inadequate state funding for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

Many spills and industrial discharges into waterways occur without public notice. But sometimes they become visible — and gain media attention.

In 2002, the Atlanta airport had an even bigger spill than this year’s jet fuel accident.

In that instance, about 30,000 gallons of ethylene glycol, a de-icer that is also a common component of antifreeze, got into the Flint River from the airport during a snowstorm.

So much de-icer was used in an effort to make aircraft flyable in wintry conditions that the excess overflowed into the stormwater system and into the Flint. The EPD was slow to notify downstream water systems when the Flint was contaminated, the AJC reported.

Some residents of south Fayette County complained the de-icer made their drinking water stink.

Trail Creek contamination. Photo from Banner-Herald
Trail Creek contamination. Photo from Athens Banner-Herald.

Eight years later, Athens-Clarke firefighters used more than 700,000 gallons of water in an unsuccessful effort to put out a fire at a chemical plant. Much of the resulting runoff wound up in nearby Trail Creek, carrying formaldehyde, dichlorobenzene and other toxic chemicals, along with a sweet oily perfume and a brightly colored dye that turned the creek a toilet-bowl blue for miles downstream, the Athens Banner-Herald reported.

The newspaper also reported at the time that Ben Emanuel, with the Altamaha Riverkeeper, helped organize a communitywide response in the days after the spill, focusing almost entirely at first on getting warnings out to the public that the blue water might be dangerous. Days passed before state or local officials posted warning signs.

Then in 2011, an estimated 38,000 fish were discovered dead in a 70-mile stretch of the Ogeechee River, all below the discharge pipe of a Screven County textile processing plan.

Many blamed the King America Finishing plant, which makes flame-resistant fabrics used by the military, utilities, chemical plants and steel mills, the AJC reported.

“At the time, five years ago, we did not feel the communication was good from EPD,’’ Emily Markesteyn, executive director and Riverkeeper, says now.

Though state environmental officials discovered that King America had been illegally dumping wastewater into the river for five years, they ultimately determined that the textile plant was not responsible for the fish kill, the AJC reported. King America agreed to pay $6.8 million to help protect the river, which includes upgrades to the factory’s wastewater discharge system.

Southeast Georgia gets its public water from wells that draw from an aquifer. But some residents have personal wells. An estimated 20 percent of Georgians get drinking water from these shallow wells.

Markesteyn says that “from my perspective, protections for groundwater could be tightened up. All water is connected in some form or fashion.

Kayakers paddle on Ogeechee this year. Photo by Savannah Morning News.
Kayakers on the Ogeechee this year. Photo from Savannah Morning News.

“When these things happen, there isn’t one entity in charge of looking at it holistically,’’ she says. “There should be a better bridge between EPD and public health.”

In Atlanta, stormwater runoff has been a chronic problem. Proctor Creek Watershed, an area west of downtown Atlanta, has experienced poor water quality, pervasive flooding and sewage overflows.

Starting in 1998, the city of Atlanta entered into consent decrees with the EPA to reduce sanitary sewer overflows. The city says the projects have reduced sewer spills by about 70 percent since 2000. Still, community groups say the stormwater runoff problem continues to plague the area, bringing water into basements and leading to the growth of mold.

The EPD, the state agency, does a better job than it used to in responding to pollution problems, says Juliet Cohen, executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. Still, she says, the EPD is understaffed, as is the federal EPA.

Health effects not well documented

Not much is known about the human health effects of Jet A fuel, according to the federal Agency on Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.


“A number of effects have been reported in humans who accidentally ingested kerosene, a fuel oil similar in composition to JP-5, JP-8, and Jet A fuels, suffered harmful effects on the respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract, and nervous system,’’ an ATSDR fact sheet says. “The observed effects included cough and difficulty breathing, abdominal pain and vomiting, drowsiness, restlessness, and convulsions.”

After the accident, the fuel tanker contractor notified the EPD and the National Response Center, the federal point of contact for reporting all hazardous substances releases and oil spills.

The contractor, Aircraft Service International Group, says it’s been the fuel provider at the airport for 22 years. “We don’t recall anything like this [the fuel spill] happening before,’’ says Douglas Hofsass, an ASIG vice president. “We take extra precautions to ensure that jet fuel is properly secured, transported and stored at all times.”

The cleanup took several days to complete, according to EPD emails obtained by Georgia Health News.

The work was a collaborative effort involving the tanker contractor ASIG, a subcontractor, and state and federal officials.

Crews used a vacuum truck, large absorbent pads and an absorbent boom, a pump, and even leaf blowers to free pooled oil from vegetation.

Drinking water was a concern. The Upper Flint River provides water for hundreds of thousands of people, says Rogers, the Riverkeeper.

Typically, water intakes draw water that goes to a local reservoir and then to a treatment plant before it reaches consumers.

The EPD notified Clayton County about the accident. Mike Thomas, a county official, says Clayton County was not drawing water from the Flint at the time of the spill. He says that even if the county had taken in the contaminated water, by the time it went through dilution and then treatment, “I don’t think we’d even notice it,” he says now

Fayette County
Fayette County

The agency said it did not notify Fayette County because that county has only an emergency intake from the Flint River, and it was not in use at the time.

“It doesn’t appear we received any notice of this spill, before, during or after,’’ Lee Pope, the Fayette County water system director, told GHN in an email.

The city of Griffin, farther south along the Flint, was alerted by the EPD.

“The state directed us to stop using the Flint River as our water source,’’ a city official told GHN in an email. “At that time we stopped using the Flint River as our water source and started pulling from our Heads Creek reservoir.  We continued this operation for approximately four days in order to allow for the possible contaminated water to pass our intake on the Flint.”

ASIG, the fuel contractor, says there were no injuries or evacuations among airport workers or those involved in the cleanup. There is no mention in reports of any contaminated water being ingested by the public.

But Rogers questions the lack of public notice. “The spill is emblematic of EPD secrecy,’’ he says. “The public is not their customer base.”

Airport spokesman Reese McCranie, after an August query from GHN, said in an email that “we checked the daily events log from April 22 and there were no problems with the spill. The spilled fuel was contained in our holding tanks. No medical concerns or dangers to the public. Fuel did not reach storm drains, grass, taxiway or enter the Flint River.”

Upper Flint River
Upper Flint River

When shown the EPA report, McCranie said that “clearly the [contractor’s] report they provided us was incorrect and we have issued a violation for this.”

Hofsass of ASIG says the company has retrained employees and completed an investigation into the accident. “The relationship we have with the airport is extremely strong,’’ he says.

The EPD did not pursue an enforcement action against the company.

Manganiello, the Georgia River Network policy director, questions the lack of a penalty in the jet fuel spill.

“Yes, there are hazards to public health’’ involved in such a spill, he says. “Particularly, something like jet fuel.”