Two years ago, Dennis Chase, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who's been unable to put down his nets and waders, found something scary in the part of the Flint River just south of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Armed with collecting dishes and magnifying lenses, Chase set out to document the abundance of life, or lack thereof, in the Flint. Though he suspected the river's health had been threatened by pollution, what he found shocked him. "I spent about an hour-and-a-half there and could not find a single living organism," Chase says. "When I find a dead zone like that, I really get worried."
Chase has come across only one other dead zone in his career. In 1995, a Peachtree City sewage plant spilled an untold amount of chlorine into Line Creek, erasing the ecosystem in a segment of it.
Chase then sampled another spot in the Flint River, about a half-mile downstream of the first one, and found that it too was a dead zone. At a third sampling site, Chase found some mildly encouraging signs: three aquatic insects. "Normally, I find hundreds of insects in a healthy river. So for the first mile-and-a-half, there was virtually nothing alive in the Flint River coming out of the airport."
Chase chronicled his findings in a 20-page report that he sent to airport officials, the state Environmental Protection Division, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "I was told, 'That's interesting,' and that's as much as I got," he says. "I basically ran into the proverbial brick wall."
Now, though, the state is paying attention. Last week, the state EPD hit the city of Atlanta with a $50,000 fine -- the largest allowed under state law -- for a 1.6-million-gallon spill of raw sewage into Sullivan Creek, a tributary of the Flint River. A major spill is defined as 10,000 gallons or more.
The EPD links the spill and at least five others to construction of the airport's $5.4 billion fifth runway. The project is one of the largest sources of sewage pollution in the state, which is troubling because construction will continue for five years.
The airport's sewage spills have been caused by debris blocking sewage lines, backhoes rupturing pipes, and power failures at treatment stations. The city has agreed to monitor Sullivan Creek for fecal material and present the findings to the public.
Told of the EPD's crackdown, Chase says, "It really surprises me because I didn't think EPD had the backbone to do it."