Flint River named one of state's dirtiest rivers

A view of the Flint River as it passes under the bridge linking Fayette to Clayton County near Woolsey. Photo/Maggie Zerkus.

The river that forms the eastern border of Fayette County has received a fourth place ranking on Georgia’s “Dirty Dozen” list by the Georgia Water Coalition. And while the designation deals with politics as much as with pollution, local biologist Dennis Chase said the Fayette County portion of the Flint is still suffering from a chemical spill at Hartsfield-Atlanta Airport a decade ago.

The main issue resulting in the Flint’s poor ranking dealt with what the Georgia Water Coalition calls an questionable experimental injection well near Albany. And pertaining to the Flint River being ranked number four in the Dirty Dozen, American Rivers Associate Director for Water Supply Ben Emanuel said that ranking dealt with both dirty politics and dirty water. The assigned ranking is more focused on water supply, water quantity and water scarcity, Emanuel added.

So what did the Georgia Water Coalition say about the Flint River?

“When Nathan Deal became Governor in 2011 he created the $300 million Governor’s Water Supply Program (GWSP) to fund ‘critical, cost-effective’ projects that will provide ‘an adequate supply of clean and affordable water’ for communities in need. In August 2012, the Deal administration released the first $102 million in this program. The bulk of the money went to reservoir projects of dubious need and to businesses and individuals that were supporters of Deal’s gubernatorial campaign. Two projects proposed by Deal supporters received $9 million in direct state investment (funds not requiring reimbursement to the state), including an experimental groundwater injection experiment on the Flint River and a well for Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority, a private resort and water park. Neither project could be considered critical or cost effective,” said Georgia River Network Executive Director April Ingle.

But there is a bit more to the dirty water side of the story. Retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Dennis Chase remembers when several thousand gallons of ethylene glycol used for de-icing was spilled at Hartsfield-Atlanta Airport a decade ago and entered the Flint River. Chase tried without success to raise the alarm.

Though 10 years have passed, Chase said he has still seen nothing to indicate that there has been any improvement to significant aquatic life that was compromised by the spill. And Chase should know since he is likely one of the few people that actually spend time in the river and is one who has the qualifications to make such a assessment.

“One of the most galling things is that one of the most polluted rivers in Georgia is less than a mile from the Ga. Environment Protection Division’s airport office,” Chase said.

With 220 undammed river miles, the Flint is one of only 40 rivers left in the United States that flow for more than 200 miles unimpeded, according to the Flint Riverkeeper organization.

“Revered as one of the most ecologically diverse river basins in the Southeast, the Flint River is also at risk from pollution; absorbing stormwater, agricultural and industrial runoff as it flows south out of the heart of Atlanta,” according to FlintRiverkeeper.org.

With its headwaters near East Point and flowing under Hartsfield Airport and through Riverdale and north Clayton County, the Flint forms the border of Fayette and Clayton counties, then makes its way through west central Georgia. The Flint River courses nearly 350 miles and converges with the Chattahoochee River at Lake Seminole to form the Apalachicola River at the Florida line.

The Flint is part of the Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin. Six percent of the surface waters sampled in the Upper Flint River and 19 percent of those sampled in the Lower Flint River are categorized as impaired by the federal Environmental Protection Administration. Nonpoint sources and urban/storm water runoff are the primary contributors to pollution in the Flint, according to the University of Georgia (UGA).

The lower reaches of both rivers are part of the Floridan aquifer system, a limestone aquifer that is susceptible to contamination. This aquifer is one of the most productive worldwide. The hydrology connecting the Floridan aquifer and the Flint River results in ground-water discharge contributing more to baseflow in the Flint River than in the Chattahoochee River. Ground water flow into the Chattahoochee River is one-fifth of that discharging into the Flint River, according to UGA.

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