• Local business shuts down, leaves costly contamination near Chattahoochee River

    By: Jodie Fleischer

    Updated:

    Georgia taxpayers could be on the hook for an expensive environmental cleanup after a local business spilled a thick oily sludge and then skipped town.

    The sludge has dripped from a drainage pipe into a small creek that flows just 1,000 feet from the Chattahoochee River.

    Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth first found the contamination in May 2014.

    "That was one of the worst things I've seen in seven and a half years of doing this type of work," Ulseth told investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer.

    He says American Sealcoat Manufacturing dumped its chemical product in the water, then dumped the environmental impact on the rest of us.

    The sludge is still there, but the company is not.

    "Now that the company has skipped town, they have made it very clear that they are not going to stick around and clean up all that oily material," Ulseth said.

    Ulseth started investigating after receiving a tip on the Riverkeeper hotline.

    He didn't catch the discharge in his first visit, so he met with American Sealcoat and told company officials to clean it up. On a return visit, he saw active dumping.

    "That's what we saw," said Ulseth, referring to video that he shot at the site. "It was very disappointing."

    Justin Fountain told Fleischer that he worked for American Sealcoat in late 2013 when a tank leaked, creating a thick layer of sealcoat all over the floor of the plant.

    "We would scrape it out, like out to the outside, and move it all that way," Fountain said.

    He said his managers didn't even bring in a dumpster to dispose of chemical waste until roughly six months later, after the riverkeeper showed up.

    "I guess they thought they could get away with it," Fountain told Fleischer. "They knew they weren't supposed to put it into the river, into that area over there, because it runs off into the river."

    Ulseth called Georgia's Environmental Protection Division to investigate the dumping.

    "Somebody knew it was going on, I'm confident. But knowing it and proving it are always the problems," said EPD Compliance Director Bert Langley.

    The state ordered the company to pay a $2,000 fine and to create an action plan.

    Fleischer asked Langley why the fine was so low.

    "It's not much of a deterrent. The $100,000 clean-up is a pretty good deterrent," Langley said. "We are much more concerned, always, to get the problem solved than to collect the fine."

    American Sealcoat has not yet paid the fine or come up with an action plan for the cleanup.

    "I was baffled when I saw that low of a fine for that serious of a violation," Ulseth said, "So that's why we are continuing to pursue legal action in court."

    The Riverkeeper is now suing American Sealcoat Manufacturing. The company's majority owner, Bill Walters, lives in New York.

    "I worked there for six months and I saw (Walters) maybe twice at the most," Fountain said, adding that the South Fulton location was run by a woman named Kim Fragale.

    Records from a New York lawsuit show that Fragle is also a part-owner of the company, but she is not named in the Riverkeeper's lawsuit.

    "I mean, they were aware of what they were doing," Fountain said. "It was her idea to put it over there."

    Fleischer tried to track down Fragale at her home in Conyers.

    When Fleischer reached her by phone, Fragale refused to comment on the situation because of the pending litigation.

    The company is in violation of its consent agreement with the state, meaning that EPD could seek civil penalties up to $50,000 per day for each day the violation continues.

    Contempt of court findings and criminal penalties are more difficult to pursue if the specific violator is out of state or unidentifiable.

    The state has now asked the Environmental Protection Agency to examine the land behind the former American Sealcoat location.

    If the damage is substantial enough, federal Superfund money can be used to clean up the spill.

    Langley said the EPA could try to recover the money for the cleanup from Fragale and Walters.

    "I don't want my tax dollars going to it, or me to have to pay more taxes in order to clean something up that they caused, and they knew what they were doing when they did it," Fountain said.

    Ulseth says preliminary tests indicate that high levels of carcinogens are present in the soil behind the American Sealcoat location.

    More extensive testing could cost thousands of dollars.

    The last resort would be to go after the landowner who rented the property to American Sealcoat Manufacturing. 

    An attorney for M & K Warehouses refused to comment, because the Riverkeeper is now suing that company too.

    Court records show that M & K Warehouses has also tried to avoid responsibility for the cleanup.

    Ulseth said that the more it rains, the bigger the risk to the river, "When we have contaminants and carcinogens getting just dumped directly into the river, that is absolutely unacceptable and that's why we do the work that we do," he said.

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