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February 20, 2003 Issue

State environmental Specialist Kavita Batra takes water samples while Whitaker Labs' Clarke Jones samples dirt, each attempting to make sense of the cause of the event that recently killed nearly all fish, turtles and frogs in Johnson Pond in Wrens.

Cause of fish kill unknown

Nearly all animals killed in pond near Wrens Elementary School

By Ben Nelms
Staff Writer

It surfaced out of nowhere, a mystery from the beginning. Now one week later, the cause of the pervasive kill of nearly all animal life in Johnson Pond in Wrens is far from resolved.

The liquid killing field that became the watery grave of a very large percentage of fish, turtles and frogs in Johnson Pond was first noticed Feb. 10 at approximately 1:30 p.m. City of Wrens employees went to the site to turn off the pump that had been running over the weekend to bring up the water level in the pond, according to Wrens Buildings and Grounds Director Walter Hannah. The last check of the pond occurred three days earlier when Hannah checked the city-owned fishing hole. Conditions at the pond appeared to be in order on Friday, he said.

The scene at Johnson Pond had altered dramatically less than 72 hours later. Though environmental studies conducted at the site have yet to estimate the number of dead animals, no one disputes that the event apparently devastated nearly all life in the 3.5-acre pond.

"A lot of fish were dead and floating," said Hannah upon arriving at the site after being summoned by city workers. "And most of the others seemed to die by the end of the day."

An unusual facet of the kill is that it involved more than fish. Environmental Protection Division (EPD), state Fish Management personnel and city employees reported that a number of reptiles and amphibians were also found dead. The presence of these species confounded the problem because, unlike fish, turtles and frogs do not breathe through gills and can exit the water if endangered.

Fish Management and EPD staff arrived at the pond in the afternoon Feb. 10 and stayed until after 8 p.m. While at the pond, agency personnel assessed the situation and took samples of both fish and water.

Adding to the confounding nature of the event, tests done on-site determined that the pH, or the level of acidity or alkalinity, of the pond was within normal limits, as was temperature, dissolved oxygen, conductivity and turbidity.

Fish biologist Ed Bettross said Tuesday that test samples of fish collected at the pond have not been completed. He added that even though both the cause and the extent of the kill are inclusive at this time, one conclusion could be determined.

"From Fisheries standpoint we are able to determine that the fish kill was not from natural causes," said Bettross. "Something else happened to cause a such a large amount of fish to die in a short amount of time. Parasites and diseases can also kill large numbers of fish. But to wipe out so many fish and to transfer to species like turtles and frogs is not something we would expect to happen."

Additional samples were collected Feb. 10 by EPD. Tests are being conducted to establish the pond's nutrient levels for essential elements such as phosphorus and ammonia.

EPD returned to the pond Feb. 13 and collected water samples that are being tested for the presence of numerous chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, metals, industrial and other chemicals listed as Volatile Organic Compounds and Synthetic Volatile Organic Compounds.

As with other samples collected by Fisheries and an independent lab, test samples have not been completed.

Environmental Specialist Kavita Batra echoed the concern stated by so many since the discovery of the dead animals.

"EPD has not ruled anything out at this point," she said Tuesday. "The cause of the kill is still under investigation. Once completed, the test results may or may not indicate the cause of the kill."

Johnson Pond is located on SR 17 adjacent to the south side of Wrens Elementary School. The pond's 3.5 acres extends vertically to a maximum depth of 15 feet, according to Hannah. A distance of approximately 50 yards separates school property from the pond.

The pond sits at a lower elevation, at a slope of approximately 45-degrees at the area nearest the highway. The mid-section of the pond decreases to approximately 30-degrees and on to approximately a five-degree slope at the side farthest from the highway. A small dam and pumping station are located at that side. The construction site for the new wing of the elementary school begins 150 feet away, near the mid-point of the pond.

Aside from testing performed by EPD and Fish Management, Jefferson County School Superintendent Carl Bethune arranged with Whitaker Laboratory in Savannah to take soil samples from the areas where fill dirt from the landfill was used. These included locations around the new classroom building currently under construction as well as locations on the playground, areas of the slope between and school and the pond, silt at the edge of the pond and across SR 17 where an area of water was discovered slowly draining approximately 40 feet from the culvert that runs under the road and drains into the pond during heavy rains. Whitaker representative Clarke Jones said Monday it generally requires seven working days to get test results, making it likely that results will not be in until Feb. 24. While at the site, Jones made a sweep of a several block area on the east side of SR 17. He determined that rainwater runoff could likely not enter the pond except at the area immediately adjacent to the culvert that drains into the pond during heavy rains.

Bethune said the school system decided to proceed with the tests in order to get independent verification. The move was geared to provide a safe environment.

"The school system has taken all precautions to test the backfill brought in recently to the school campus," he said Tuesday. "We are also testing areas including the playground to make sure the environment is safe for the children."

Wrens' Mayor J. J. Rabun said Tuesday, like the other departments and agencies, he is waiting to see if the test samples will reveal the cause of the pervasive kill.

"Everybody is wondering what happened," he said. "I think we will eventually know the cause when the tests results are in."

Rabun also said he believed that the fill dirt from land adjacent to the old Wrens landfill used at the school construction site would not be a factor in the incident.

A Monday check of the old landfill and the adjacent area where dirt was removed for use at the school revealed that a minimum of 200 yards separated the two sites.

Additionally, the area where dirt was excavated sits significantly uphill from the landfill, indicating that rainwater runoff from the landfill would flow in the opposite direction of the excavation area. It was determined that the dirt used at the dam in December was brought in from private property approximately five miles north of Wrens off SR 17.

Johnson Pond has been in existence for decades. The pond is stocked by the city with bass, bream, catfish and carp and is the location of Wrens' annual children's Wal-Mart-sponsored Fish Rodeo.

Former Bridges manager arrested for theft

By Ben Nelms
Staff Writer

Recent thefts at Bridges of Hope rehabilitation center on Mennonite Church Road have resulted in a charge of theft by taking against the center's former manager.

Thirty-seven year-old Keysville resident Mickey McDonald was arrested Monday based on information compiled since early January by Jefferson County Sheriff's investigators, a Sheriff's spokesman said Monday. McDonald is currently on probation for drug-related offenses. vThe investigation was initiated following a report filed Jan. 3 by Homerville-based Bridges of Hope Executive Director Randy Sellers indicating that a number of items belonging to the center were missing. Sellers requested that the Sheriff's office conduct an investigation.

In the Jan. 3 report, Sellers said McDonald was believed to have taken the items and his employment as manager of the center had been terminated. Missing property listed on the report totaled an estimated $19,000 and included items such as tools, furniture, food, large equipment and money. Some of the center's residents told current manager William Richards they were made to help load the items for apparent transport out of the facility, Sellers said Tuesday. The report included other information provided by residents indicating that they had allegedly been threatened by McDonald, being told that they "shouldn't get too close to (Sellers) or they would pay for it later" and if they "got within 10 feet of (Sellers) there would be serious consequences," Sellers said.

Upon being fired, McDonald had been allowed to remove his personal belongings from the center but had allegedly returned later and removed a substantial amount of Bridges' property, investigators said.

During the course of the investigation and subsequent interviews with McDonald, investigators recovered Bridges of Hope property valued at approximately $8,000-$9,000.

The returned items included a chain saw, two fishing boats, a canoe, hot water heater, meat grinder, Plexiglas, vehicle jacks, three new Briggs & Stratton engines, tillers, a four-wheeler and various other goods, investigators said.

McDonald also returned an uncashed $400 check dated Feb. 5, apparently intended to help defray expenses of one of the Bridges' residents.

The envelope had been addressed to Bridges of Hope, to McDonald's attention.

The envelope containing the check and an attached note was affixed with a post office change of address label and had been forwarded to McDonald's Keysville address.

Investigators said they were also told by Sellers that numerous residents' records were found to be missing at the time of McDonald's dismissal.

Sellers said Tuesday the missing records included residents' intake records, medication administration records, receipts for all purchases and information on donations. McDonald maintained that he had not taken the records, investigators said.

Also in question is the money spent to restore two tractors belonging either to McDonald or a family member. Sellers said the center spent approximately $5,000 in parts and supplies to complete the restorations. The tractors were allegedly removed from the center by McDonald after the restorations were done.

Less than two weeks after the investigation began officers discovered that several residents were allegedly preparing to attempt to manufacture methamphetamine.

A handwritten formula for the drug was found on a piece of paper in the center's kitchen area and some of the ingredients necessary for its production were located, investigators said. Sellers told officers that the residents involved in the incident have been transferred.

McDonald originally entered the Bridges' program as a resident approximately two years ago and had been made manager by former CEO George Sirmins after 30 days, said Sellers.

McDonald was freed on bond shortly after his arrest Monday.

Sellers took over the position of CEO in August 2002 and currently supervises all four of the Bridges' sites. He said Sheriff's investigators were vital in helping resolve the issues that plagued the center. Sellers said his hope is that the community will give Bridges the opportunity to prove it can be a quality rehab facility and a good neighbor.

"Things have not been running here like they were supposed to," he said. "We've found the problems and eliminated them. We intend to prove to Jefferson County that Bridges of Hope will run like it was supposed to from the beginning. It's cleaned up now and on the way to being one of the best programs in this part of the country."

The investigation into the events at the Bridges of Hope center are ongoing and additional arrests may be forthcoming, the Sheriff's spokesman said.

Bridges of Hope is a non-profit rehabilitation center based in Homerville. Bridges' Jefferson County campus, located on approximately 120 acres of county owned property on Mennonite Church Road, was leased to the non-profit approximately four years ago.

County administrator applicants narrowed from 29 to five

Among those to be interviewed are Alton E. Brown, Paul C. Bryan, Chavas L. Boyd, William W. Rabun and Mark H. Pulliam

By Ben Nelms
Staff Writer

The field of 29 applicants vying for the job of county administrator narrowed to only five Tuesday as Jefferson County commissioners conducted interviews with those who made the cut.

Speaking personally about the selection process, Chairman Gardner Hobbs said prior to the interviews that he believed the successful candidate would need a strong background in finance in addition to the other considerations required for the job. He said the board will re-open the search if the current candidates do not meet commissioners' expectations.

The applicants interviewed included:

Alton E. Brown, of Dickson, Tenn., who served as City Administrator for the City of Dickson, Executive Director with Tennessee Housing Development Agency and Senior Vice President at Fidelity Federal Bank. He received a B.S. in business Administration at University of Tennessee.

Paul C. Bryan, of Cleveland, Ga., who served as County Administrator for White County, County Manager in Screven County and Warden at the county correctional institute in Sylvania. He holds an MBA and a B.S. in Business Administration from Breneau Professional College.

Chavas L. Boyd, of Augusta, serves as Branch Manager for Regions Financial Corporation and formerly served as Customer Service Representative/Teller with First National Bank & Trust in Louisville. He is currently seeking an MBA in Finance and holds a Bachelors degree in Business Administration Management from Augusta State University.

William W. Rabun, of Louisville, is Owner/Operator of Rabun Farms Inc., serves as President of R & R Livestock, Inc. and is a Trustee for Baptist Village, Inc. He served as Jefferson County Commissioners from District 4 from 1993-1997 and chaired the regional Georgia Agriculture Committee.

Mark H. Pullium, of Fayetteville, serves as Finance Director with Fayette County Board of Commissioners, served as Accounting Administrator for Athens-Clarke County and owned a public accounting practice. He is a Certified Public Accountant with a BSBA in Finance from Western Carolina University and is involved in coaching youth sports.

Glascock County heard no opposition to use of biosolid sludge

Hearing was step one in removing 593 tons from city's wastewater holding ponds

By Ben Nelms
Staff Writer

The City of Gibson moved one step closer last week to solving the problem of what to do with the buildup of biosolids in the city's wastewater holding pond and oxidation pond.

A Feb. 11 public hearing on the issue met with no opposition to a request to land-apply the biosolids on private property in Glascock County.

The hearing was the first step in a process that will lead to removing an estimated 593 tons, calculated on a dry weight basis, from the 4.3-acre ponds.

Bids on the removal and land application cannot occur until a sludge management plan is approved and funding for the project is secured from Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority (GEFA).

The city council heard a proposal from county resident Phil Raley to have the biosolids applied to property he owns.

He said the primary cover crop on the property would include Coastal Bermuda and Bahia grasses.

The removal of biosolids from the wastewater treatment system became necessary due to the buildup of material in the ponds over the past few decades.

A March 2002 inspection of the system revealed the need for extracting the biosolids, as 35-40 percent of the total depth of the ponds was found to contain the material.

"The present level of biosolids is normally the point when a cleanup becomes necessary and beneficial," city clerk DeAnn Holley said Monday.

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Last modified: February 19, 2003