There are a lot of blues in this world, even in the literal sense.

There’s the soft blue of a clear morning sky or the rich blues of the deep ocean. The navy blues that make up the marks of so many sports teams, as well as the paler blues prevalent in spring flowers.

On July 29, 2010, a different shade of blue flowed through Trail Creek in Athens. 

It was bright. It was harsh.

This blue contrasted against the greenery of summer, lush leaves filling out the plentiful trees that lined the waters. Gone was the murky, muddy mixture that punctuates creeks and rivers throughout the South. In its place was a near-neon blue snaking its way through a network of tributaries and leaving streaks of artificial color in its wake.

It was alien. It was painful.

“You know everybody kind of talks about water being blue, or we think about water in the Caribbean being blue,” said Chris Manganiello, now the water policy director for the Chattahoochee River Keeper. “You just have that in your mind, like, that’s blue water. But you know, Trail Creek, it’s usually brown, or some different shade of brown. 

“To see that contrast and blue against the green (of the trees) was just, you know, unprecedented.”

A blue born in fire

To understand how we got the blues of July 29, 2010, we need to go back to July 28. 

That night, a blaze broke out at J&J Chemical Company located at Trans Tech Drive in the northern area of Athens. The plant had been in operation since 1967, producing deodorants, urinal cakes, fragrance enhancers and other assorted cleaning supplies. 

Throughout the darkness of the night, with the oranges and yellows of the raging fire giving light to the sky, firefighters from Athens-Clarke County battled with hoses and hope. They’d succeed in putting out the flames in one section only to see the blaze reignite elsewhere on the expansive property.

According to the remediation report compiled by HEPCO, the private company that handled the clean-up of the fire and resulting chemical spill for J&J Chemical Company, there was an extensive span of trees and woodlands damaged by the blaze, extending all the way “down toward the unnamed tributary.”

More than 700,000 gallons of water were poured onto the property, with burning chemicals floating atop the water, leading to several responders referring to “a river of fire” streaming downward to the East Fork of Trail Creek. The influx of water flushed countless chemicals from the facility into the nearby tributaries. 

The fight against the fire was won by the morning of July 29, but the broader battle was just beginning. It’s one Manganiello can’t seem to shake.

“You know, it’s remarkable — and it’s unforgettable — to see a river that’s blue,” he said.

An ecological crisis unfolds

Athens, at least in the summer, can be construed as a sleepy college town. 

The population contracts by some 20,000 or so, with a few students departing for good due to graduation at the University of Georgia and others filtering across the country to see family, pursue internships or just gather with friends.

Traffic improves, encouraging some locals who shy away from the more crowded portions of the city to venture out. Bars and restaurants shut down for a week at a time, typically after the Fourth of July, enabling workers to take a breath and prepare for it all to start up again.

It’s a never-ending cycle, the town being reborn and replenished every August.

On the morning of July 29, Athens was in the middle of that in-between, and Ben Emanuel was returning from a family vacation. He had heard news about the fire and, like most folks in its immediate aftermath, thought it was a shame and was glad that no one had gotten hurt.

And he was the first call Manganiello made.

Photo courtesy of Trail Creek Witness

“Ben was a person who I had gotten to know the previous couple years and you know, having read his work and his journalism,” Manganiello said. “You know, he just was the kind of person that I knew who had a sense of how things worked in Athens.” 

Emanuel had recently wrapped up a stint as the City Editor at Flagpole, Athens’ weekly alternative newspaper, before moving to work with the Georgia River Network and the Altamaha Riverkeeper. Not only did he have the network of relationships needed to get to the bottom of this mystery, but he also possessed an intimate knowledge of how watersheds function that would prove to be valuable in the coming days and weeks.

“Like a lot of us, we noticed the visual cue of that electric blue color, but the odor and the offgassing was what struck us also,” Emanuel recalled. “Chris called me at, like, 8 a.m. sharp.” 

Manganiello lived nearby and regularly walked his dog at Dudley Park. What greeted him that morning was far from normal. Heavy foam was churning as the currents wrapped around rocks, limbs and banks with the water slowly turning bluer and bluer with each passing moment.

While the visual was striking enough, the fumes from the various chemicals in the water were having their own impact. Manganiello recalled getting a headache after just 15 minutes of photographing the worsening situation.

If it’s just blue dye, he wondered, why was it making his head hurt?

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz, then the District 9 commissioner for the Athens-Clarke County Commission, was fielding his own share of calls and questions, and he decided to investigate the scene.

“Almost immediately I thought ‘let me just walk over there and see what’s going on,’ and I walked from my house on Pulaski Street through the edge of downtown,” Girtz said. “I particularly remember walking around the edge of Dudley Park to First Street and then Vine Street and, sure as hell, standing on the bridge over Trail Creek on Vine Street (the smell) was potent. 

“It was in the air, and the water was blue.”

Photo courtesy of Trail Creek Witness

Initial confusion around what to do

At first, the attention centered around the successful efforts by the Athens-Clarke County Fire Department to contain and ultimately extinguish the fire, particularly given the scale of the blaze and the concerns that it could have spread.

But as blue streaks began staining the river system, punctuated by the strong chemical odors that seemed to hover over the surrounding areas of Trail Creek, it was apparent that another crisis now confronted the community. Despite the visual cues of discolored streams and anecdotal tales of dead fish accumulating on the banks, there seemed to be little sense of who was in charge and what needed to be done.

“I walked around and checked it out, took a couple of pictures,” recalled Peter Norris, an IT director at the University of Georgia. “I contacted the mayor at the time, Heidi Davison, and I said, ‘this looks pretty bad.’ And she told me ‘well, the county manager says it’s OK, so I’m not going to worry about it.’ 

“That was a little disappointing to me.”

The frustrations were understandable, even if they weren’t always entirely reasonable. The spill proved to be a slow-moving ecological emergency, advancing at the pace of the flow of the water through the various fingers of the watershed. 

Photo courtesy of Trail Creek Witness

On top of that, there were significant gaps in knowledge and resources that inadvertently contributed to the early confusion. For instance, Dick Fields, the longtime environmental director for Athens-Clarke County had recently retired, taking with him years of ecological experience and community expertise.

“It’s possible that someone with institutional knowledge in the city may have been able to react more quickly,” Manganiello said. “The other piece of it too is (Fields) would have known what to say and do behind the walls of the city in such a way that people who worked with him would have said that ‘oh yeah, well Dick said it, so it must be right.’”

Compounding the problem at the state level was Georgia’s various environmental offices had suffered through years of budget cuts and downsizings. Those who could respond to the spill already were stretched thin.

“It became evident early on that (the Environmental Protection Division) of Georgia had very little staff, and the staff they did have covered these enormous geographic regions, like here to Savannah basically,” Girtz said. “For someone who is already stretched thin, a significant chemical spill but one that is geographically isolated to the Oconee River and its tributaries, it’s easy to think ‘well, hey, that’s a small prize.’”

Understaffing wasn’t merely a problem at the state level, but also locally.

“At one point in those first few days, when we were doing our site visits all up and down, I ran into Chuck Gulley who was the emergency management coordinator,” Emanuel said. “Technically it was all under his purview, but he more or less admitted to us ‘all that watershed stuff, I don’t know much about.’”

One of the concerns was what many in the community felt like was a lack of transparency and, at the most basic level, information sharing that could aid citizens. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources initially downplayed the impact of the spill, while EPD officials said they’d conduct water quality tests and provide recommendations later. 

Likewise, local officials shared little information about the spill publicly for several days, leading to more confusion and uncertainty.

“There were plenty of failings of information flow,” Emanuel said. “For instance, (Gulley) was an office of one and housed with both the fire department and EMS, and that cross-silo knowledge sharing was not there. The fact was that you could have this fire and it still could have effects down across from the river downtown.”

Photo courtesy of Johnathan McGinty

A community responds

Given what felt like a lackadaisical – and, to some, non-existent – response to inform the community, several local environmental groups and concerned residents sprung into action. A flurry of phone calls and emails in those opening days sought to raise awareness in the community about the severity of the situation.

Within days after the spill, concerned citizens gathered at the offices of the Georgia River Network to discuss practical next steps focused on communication, monitoring and engagement. At the initial meeting, most participants also shared reports of what they had seen to help get a better understanding of the scope of the crisis.

With person after person sharing their insights, Norris opted to connect his laptop to a larger screen and captured feedback in real time.

“People were talking about having some pictures they wanted to share and, you know, I’m an IT manager, so I know those technologies,” Norris said. “Google sites were a little bit new, so I said ‘well, let’s just put up a Google site and everybody can post to it.’”

Photo courtesy of Trail Creek Witness

Trail Creek Witness was born that day, and it’s still online even now. As people shared their stories and photos from the spill, Norris took notes in real time for all to see, organizing a myriad of thoughts as these organizations attempted to put together a response.

There was a primary concern for the health and safety of people who fished in the water or took their children and pets along the banks of Trail Creek for walks. 

That led the group to develop signage that could be positioned around the creek and its various tributaries, offering a well-worded warning to passers-by.

“We were very careful with our language on those signs because there were all these arguments around ‘nobody knows what’s in it,’ so we were very careful to say ‘caution, water may be contaminated,’” Emanuel said. “And in smaller print we made it clear (the signs were) printed by teams of non-profit organizations. So with those two caveats we went crazy, laminated the signs, put them on bright yellow paper, and we just plastered them everywhere.”

For those first community responders, the signs were critically important. 

That blue color came from a dye that was relatively harmless, and the strong odors primarily were from additives regularly put into various cleaners. While both would eventually subside, the lingering chemicals could pose a possible threat for those who went in the water or attempted to eat something from it.

The major concern was the presence of formaldehyde, which is highly toxic and would lead to fish kills in the river system.

The signs proved to be both popular and appreciated, but also short-lived.

According to Emanuel, official signage from Athens-Clarke County would soon replace the organic ones produced by the collection of environmental groups that were more difficult to read and not laminated to protect them from the elements.

“It was in no way warning people there was an actual health hazard,” he said, the disbelief in his voice today as fresh as it was 12 years ago. “I mean there was formaldehyde in the water.” 

Dealing with the aftermath

In response to the spill, the task of clean-up fell to HEPACO.

A private company that specializes in environmental and emergency response, HEPACO arrived on-site the morning after the fire, installing silt fences, building a sedimentation pond, excavating impacted soil, pumping contaminated water through a carbon filter and conducting regular water testing. 

“I would talk to the HEPACO guys out in the field, and we both knew they couldn’t tell me everything, and I respected that,” said Emanuel. “They put in air spargers in a few locations, but there wasn’t much that could be done at that point. Everyone had gotten so upset — the local government and EPD had failed so much in the beginning – there was a lot of leverage to get them to do whatever they could.” 

Georgia’s DNR and EPD, along with local environmental groups, continued to monitor the quality of water in the coming weeks and months. In all, more than 15,000 fish and other water-based creatures were determined to have died as a result of the spill. While preliminary results speculated that a lack of oxygen in the water resulted in the kill, further testing revealed high concentrations of para-dichlorobenzene and formaldehyde as the toxic culprit.

Chris Martin, the DNR fisheries supervisor at the time told the Athens Banner-Herald, “there’s no fish that was able to survive that.”

Given the scale of the incident, there were plenty of questions that arose in the aftermath.

Photo of Ben Emanuel courtesy of Johnathan McGinty

“It’s that whole kind of trust and transparency piece that is lacking in these types of situations, where nobody wants to kind of come out and tell you what’s going on at the very beginning, which then leads you to not really trust them for what they tell you kind of later on,” Manganiello said. “I understand that this was an emergency situation, and I understand in those initial hours they were just trying to put a fire out. But at the same time, you know, there are immediate public health and community issues to be dealt with, as well as the long-term ones. 

“Even to this day, it’s still unclear to me if we know exactly what was on that site.”

The lack of clarity around what was actually at the facility troubled local leaders.

“There were two interrelated questions – one at the microlevel is why did you use water in this circumstance, but the bigger question that emerged was why is it that we don’t know what is sitting in all these industrial facilities all over the community?” Girtz said. “That knowledge could better inform fire department responses and, in this case, the water pushed a lot of the material into the wetlands adjacent to Trail Creek and then the creek itself.”

Emanuel and Girtz both noted that in the years that followed, meetings were arranged between Athens-Clarke County staff and local environmental leaders to better understand what happened during the response and what steps could be taken to prevent this from occurring again. That included, Girtz noted, getting a better handle on what’s being stored at industrial sites like J&J Chemical.

Still, officials from the EPD said in the wake of the spill that such an inventory wouldn’t have mattered when it came to fighting a fire at such a site.

“You had to put water on the fire to put it out, and that water had to go someplace,” Allen Barnes, director of the Environmental Protection Division of the Department of Natural Resources, told board members during a departmental meeting in the weeks that followed. “If we had had everybody from EPD there, we still would have had to wait until they put out that fire.”

Lessons learned and a path forward

River systems essentially are self-cleaning entities. Water from upstream rushes in, flushing out pollutants and slowly cleansing the impacted area over time. The severity of the impact on downstream communities varies, depending on elements like dilution, flow rates and the like.

In the weeks, months and years after the spill, Trail Creek slowly and surely regained its health.

David Manning, now a professor at the University of Nebraska, was a student at the University of Georgia at the time and an active member of the Upper Oconee Watershed Network. He opened the 2015 Georgia Water Resources Conference with a report that noted macroinvertebrates – small creatures like insects or water worms – were back in the creek at levels similar to those prior to the spill.

It was a welcome sign, and another example of the commitment of the Athens community to ensuring the stream could bounce back. 

“One of the great things about Athens is that we have engaged citizens that will take their personal time to address things that are of community-wide impact,” Norris said. “You know, I lived in a number of cities, not nearly as small as Athens, but to me that’s a unique thing that we have here in this town.”

For Girtz, the response to the spill helped him think more strategically about the challenges – and opportunities – a community like Athens-Clarke County might face. If local and state officials were ill-equipped to respond to something like Trail Creek in a manner that the community desired, it was incumbent for him to ensure that wouldn’t happen again.

Now, as mayor, he regularly meets with local staff to help facilitate and encourage information sharing.

“You have to conceptualize problems – even significant ones – before they occur,” Girtz said. “(The legacy of the Trail Creek spill) helps teach that lesson to me, and what we find in adult life is we have to relearn them again and again.” 

It also stressed the importance and value of the community engagement and activism that Athens-Clarke County prides itself on. From public meetings to protests, community gatherings to concerts, civic-minded individuals in the Classic City have long done their part to raise awareness, push for change and, in some instances, do their part to address a challenge.

The response of the community’s environmental groups to the Trail Creek spill was no exception.

“The watershed groups and riverkeepers, it’s easy to just see us as environmentalists advocating and criticizing the way things are done,” Emanuel said. “But we have always known – with quarterly stream monitoring that the Upper Oconee Watershed Network has been doing since the 1990s and with its efforts on education in the community – we have always known those activities were filling the gaps that local government only partly fills.

“And we had a good team, and we felt like we filled that gap.”

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Johnathan McGinty has worked in sports journalism and sports public relations for the past 20 years. If there's an opportunity to put together an oral history on something, he'll find a way to do it.