The closing came after Gold Creek Foods Inc. received a notice of violation from Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) for failing to properly contain storm-water runoff from an area where its trucks are unloaded. The notice was issued Aug. 2.
The same day, officials with the Dawson County Environmental Health Department advised Robinson Elementary School to close access to a three-acre outdoor classroom located next to Gold Creek Foods. Storm water from the processing plant runs above ground across the school’s property.
“We know there’s a problem, and we’re addressing it,” said Mark Sosebee, CEO and co-founder of Gold Creek Foods. Sosebee said record rainfall and increased production at the facility on Highway 9 combined to cause the problem.
“We have to do a better job capturing what drips off the trucks when they are loading and unloading.”
Albert Langley, director of compliance with EPD’s mountain district office, notified Sosebee of the violation.
“When the trucks are opened and unloaded, you get a lot of water runoff from ice and condensation,” said Langley. “But that water is also mixed with blood and other stuff with high biological content. ... When that ran off into the ditch it created a situation where bacteria grows more readily.
“They are not allowed to do that. Storm-water discharge should not contain that type of material.”
In a Sept. 23 letter to School Superintendent Keith Porter, Langley stated that “there are some areas of the plant that allowed contaminated runoff to discharge directly into the storm-water system and onto the school property.”
EPD required Gold Creek Foods to provide a corrective-action plan to “eliminate contact between poultry by-products and storm water at the GCF property.”
Gold Creek Foods then hired Mill Creek Environmental Services Inc., located on Perimeter Road in Dawsonville, to provide the plan, which includes installing and burying a drainage pipe along the edge of the school’s outdoor classroom.
“Once the pipe has been installed and backfilled, the area should then be completely safe for access by both adults and children,” Langley said in the letter.
Once EPD approves Gold Creek’s plan, it will be 60 to 90 days before the pipe installation is completed, according to Michael Sheets, vice president at Gold Creek Foods.
Gold Creek has contracted with a storm-water and wastewater installation company to obtain the necessary local permits to begin construction. City of Dawsonville officials have indicated they will issue the permits after EPD approves the engineering design, according to a letter dated Sept. 23 from Dan Centofanti at Mill Creek Environmental Systems to EPD.
“EPD has complete control,” said Sosebee. “We’re under their jurisdiction.”
Documents obtained by the News & Advertiser show that “EPD concurs with the scope of the submitted corrective-action plan.” Five items, however, must be addressed by Gold Creek Foods before EPD’s approval.
“They’re minor things, like putting arrows on the plan to indicate where the receiving bodies of water are,” Sosebee said. “We want to get this fixed quickly. I grew up here. I live here. I graduated from Dawson County High School, and this is important.”
Trust but verify
Porter said he is satisfied with the response from Gold Creek and the all governmental agencies involved.
He has, however, requested frequent testing of the site for the next seven years.
“I don’t want us to have a concern in the future,” he said. “That will be a relief for parents to know it will be regularly tested — not just once the new pipe is in, and people forget about it. That’s not going to be the case.”
The intervals for testing for the first three years are requested as “regularly scheduled,” and for the period between years four and seven would be bi-annually, Porter said.
Roxanne Fausett, principal at Robinson Elementary School, said she has spoken with some parents and kept them informed of the situation.
“I am looking forward to being able to have access to that part of our playground very soon,” she said.
Diane Hartley, treasurer of the Robinson Elementary School’s Parent/Teacher Organization (PTO), said parents raised more than $28,000 for the outdoor classroom and garden.
“We sold bricks last year and over a hundred people bought them,” she said. “They’re being delivered next week, and we’ve got nowhere to put them since our garden is closed.”
Children and parent-volunteers tilled the soil at the school and planted more than 600 daffodil bulbs and native azaleas, and created an outdoor habitat for butterflies and bees.
“I feel really frustrated,” said Hartley. “It’s been nine weeks and nothing is happening.”
Hartley said the PTO also had planned a vegetable garden.
“We wanted to teach the children about nature and where their food comes from,” she said, “but because of what’s going on, we don’t think we should eat anything grown in that area.”
Langley’s letter to Porter stated that soil on the school’s property near Gold Creek Foods tested positive for high levels of fecal coliform; however, it did not contribute to the storm-water runoff issue.
“Fecal coliform is a naturally occurring bacterium,” wrote Langley. “Although often considered an indicator of contamination of a site by domestic sewage, this is not by any means always the case, and indeed is not the case at Robinson Elementary School.”