Jan 31, 2022 - News

Industrial runoff threatens soil, Atlanta waterways

A side by side photo of an industrial site and a creek with orange-ish water

Photos: Thomas Wheatley/Axios (left); Courtesy of the Altamaha Riverkeeper (right)

In south Atlanta, clean water advocates and government officials say a metal processing facility must stop hazardous waste from escaping its site and polluting nearby soil and a creek.

Why it matters: Industrial waste — think runoff from construction sites trapping pollutants and hazardous materials — can pose public health issues, disrupt ecosystems, and corrode pipes.

  • This potentially toxic material can spill beyond the site, get onto people’s shoes and clothes and into their homes; or dry up and pollute the air. The health concerns are so great that a nearby middle school has blocked off part of its campus.

What’s happening: Located in an industrial pocket just outside the Atlanta airport, TAV Holdings grinds up an estimated 6 million pounds of automobile parts, electrical waste and other debris every year to extract metals.

  • Federal officials say the company never notified them or state officials about the company’s hazardous or solid waste activities.
  • Uncovered piles of crushed materials dot TAV’s roughly 37 acres. During storms, rain mixes with the giant mounds, overwhelms the company’s system, and flows downhill toward a tributary, the Altamaha Riverkeeper says.
  • The unnamed creek weaves past a neighborhood, a middle school, and along the edge of a public park.

On Jan. 10, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered TAV to stop all activities that could release hazardous materials into the water, soil and air “as necessary to protect human health and the environment.”

Roy Squire’s house in Glenrose Heights backs up to the creek. On some rainy days, says Squire, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, the creek turns a dark gray.

The big picture: Across the country, communities of color and people living on low incomes are too often on the receiving end of pollution from nearby industrial sites.

What they’re saying: A TAV spokesperson says in a statement that the company is working with EPA and plans to upgrade the plant.

  • “This is the most egregious site that I've seen that is not on a Superfund registry or state hazardous site registry,” says Fletcher Sams, the executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, referring to government lists of highly polluted properties.
Lay of the land
Across the street from TAV, downhill from the piles of metal waste, a residential complex is under construction. The Altamaha Riverkeeper has also raised concerns about Metal Tek, a similar facility. Data: Axios research; Map: Thomas Oide/Axios

Located near the Hapeville city limits, TAV sits on top of a hill, bordered by a creek and I-75. The plant has been in operation since at least 2015.

  • Crawford Long Middle School backs up to the creek, and two miles downstream the tributary connects to the South River, a designated-fishing river that flows through DeKalb County and connects to the Altamaha River.

Background: On Jan. 30, 2017, Atlanta watershed officials investigated a complaint about sediment flowing from TAV directly into the nearby creek.

  • A company official initially denied that TAV was responsible, according to city documents Axios obtained through an Open Records Request, but later said a boom — a device aimed at preventing runoff and spills — had been removed.

The company’s president promised to repair the problem, the city documents say. Inspectors reported they were satisfied with TAV’s fixes when they visited one month later.

Yes, but: Subsequent site visits showed signs of recent discharges, silt fences covered in sediment, and bogs of thick grayish mud along the creek, according to Atlanta Department of Watershed Management inspectors' reports.

  • Upstream from TAV, the water was clear; downstream from the facility, the water was gray and cloudy, according to photos city inspectors took during an early Feb. 2021 visit.

During walks in and along the creek with Sams, the Riverkeeper director, dating back to early 2021, Axios observed jagged creek banks and mushroom-like orange plumes in the water — telltale signs of a waterway in distress, advocates say.

What they found: After preliminary samples found elevated levels of metals, Sams in July 2021 partnered with Eri Saikawa, an Emory University researcher behind a groundbreaking investigation of lead in soil in westside Atlanta neighborhoods.

  • The testing of sediment next to a stormwater drain showed elevated levels of lead and other metals, according to sample results obtained by Axios.
Between the lines
Data: Dr. Eri Saikawa of Emory University and the Altamaha Riverkeeper; Note: Results are preliminary. Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

Late last year, state environmental officials asked EPA to lead the investigation.

Why it matters: State officials' records on TAV begin in 2017. In June 2020, the Georgia EPD issued the company a Notice of Violation.

Concerns: Sams points out what he considers to be two glaring problems with how the case has been enforced:

  1. The city of Atlanta doesn’t have an ordinance with which it could charge TAV; only the state EPD, which issues permits that allow companies like TAV to operate, can take action, he says.
  2. EPD lacks the resources to proactively investigate potential pollution, Sams says. During earlier site visits, the agency should have assessed how TAV’s operations were affecting the surrounding soil and creek, he argues, not solely examined the facility’s stormwater systems.

“A lot of times, the type of programs that this type of investigation will fall into, you will have one or two dedicated staffers looking at one of these sites,” Sams tells Axios. “If those staffers are turning over and it takes a whole year to spin up the knowledge to [address the problem], this is a symptom of that larger problem.”

The other side: Turnover at the agency hovers around 24%, EPD spokesperson Kevin Chambers tells Axios, but says that turnover did not affect the handling of the agency’s investigation.

  • More than 80 employees have left the agency in the first six months of this fiscal year. Many of them took similar jobs elsewhere with "substantially" higher pay, Chambers says.
Hitting close to home
A man scoops up soil to conduct a sample near a silt fence in a muddy area near a creek
Students with Eri Saikawa's class helped conduct soil sampling near TAV. Photo: Thomas Wheatley/Axios

Daniel Blackman, the EPA administrator for the region including metro Atlanta, says environmental justice and reducing pollution in neighborhoods are priorities.

State of play: According to Data Nexus, Glenrose Heights and the surrounding communities are predominantly Black, and roughly 30 percent of the area’s residents live below the poverty line.

In addition to waste in the water, federal environmental officials have concerns that dust blowing from the large mounds of waste could affect the neighborhoods, including Long Middle where approximately 780 students attend school.

The bottom line: Left unaddressed, polluted creeks endanger public health and make the job of cleaning up rivers even more difficult.

  • Creeks are capillaries of the water system, leading to rivers, which are the arteries. The small things must work for big things to work, says Ben Emanuel of American Rivers, an eco advocacy group.

The Chattahoochee River today is much cleaner than decades ago, when raw sewage was visible in its waterways.

But bacteria levels still spike after heavy rains wash trash and pollution — and rather disgustingly, dog poop — into creeks that flow to the river.

What we're watching
A creek in the winter with downed trees crossing the water
Photo: Thomas Wheatley/Axios

To comply with the EPA order, TAV must obtain the appropriate permits for the facility, submit plans for how to safely operate the site, and produce a plan to address contamination.

  • EPA conducted additional sampling and plans to hold a meeting soon with area neighborhoods, an agency spokesperson tells Axios.

APS officials say they're working with EPA to evaluate the potential impact to Long Middle, including conducting the school district's own sampling.

Stopping pollution at the source: Stronger laws that prohibit development close to a waterway, green infrastructure like bioswales that manage rainwater on site, and fixing leaky pipes can help keep soil and water clean, Emanuel says.

If done right: Nature is resilient. With proper care and restoration of streams, “stream bugs” would return, attracting birds, Emanuel says. Banks and buffers would be planted to encourage undergrowth, to control erosion. Trees would provide cover for wildlife to make homes.

  • “That will be the physical appearance of the stream,” he says, “more stable, and shaded, and green and alive.”

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