Breaking News
More () »

'It's imperative that companies put people over production' | Three chemical spills at Gainesville poultry plant in 14 months

The latest spill was a bleach leak which occurred March 11; that's exactly one year after the second leak. The January 2021 nitrogen leak killed six workers.

GAINESVILLE, Ga. — There have been three chemical spills in just fourteen months inside a Gainesville poultry plant. It's the same plant where six workers died January last year over a nitrogen leak. 

The plant has changed ownership since, but almost two weeks ago, a spokesperson with the Hall County Emergency Management says four workers had to be treated - and all employees evacuated - after a bleach spill.

Shelly Anand represents many of the affected families through the immigrant and worker rights organization, Sur Legal Collaborative. The organization came to fruition during the pandemic.

"Three months into our organization, one of the worst workplace fatalities and accidents in recent history happened with a nitrogen leak," she said.

That was back in January 2021. The nitrogen leak claimed the lives of six workers at the plant, which was formerly owned by the Foundation Food Group.

RELATED: Government cites 59 violations at Gainesville plant where six died in nitrogen leak, calls deaths 'preventable'

Just six weeks after, on March 11, an ammonia leak happened in the same place.   

"We noticed some of the issues that had been present during the nitrogen leak were present during the ammonia leak," Anand remembered. "There was only one exit door that was available for the workers... OSHA 101 says you have to have at least two exit doors, and they have to lead directly to the outside."

Since then, the plant has changed ownership to Gold Creek Foods.

But Anand says that hasn't stopped the problem.

"Different company, same facility, same hazard," she said. "When the ammonia leak happened six weeks after the nitrogen leak, [workers we work with] were like, are we next are we gonna die?" 

Nearly two weeks ago, exactly one year after the ammonia leak on March 11, Hall County Emergency Management authorities were called into the plant for a bleach spill.

Gold Creek Foods confirms that a 275-gallon tank filled with bleach was punctured by a "third-party" and approximately 100 gallons had leaked out.

In a statement, it said:

"Subsequent investigation of the cause of the leak suggests a 275-gallon container was damaged during delivery by a piece of metal on the third-party truck. Gold Creek team members attempted to reject the package upon delivery but were refused. Gold Creek Foods received a signed statement from the courier service stating that its dispatch did not allow rejection of the damaged package. By the time team members were able to move the package and stop the leak, approximately 100 gallons had leaked into the contained drainage system at a concentration of just 12 percent."

In a press release, Hall County said it was a 350-gallon tank, and that it had been "punctured by a forklift." It added that the chemical then drained from the tank into an "internal contained drain inside the business."

RELATED: Gainesville poultry plant has second leak in six months; Complaint filed with OSHA

Regardless, both confirm four workers were treated on-scene for eye irritation. In another part of the statement, Gold Creek Foods claims:

"They received medical evaluations on site by first responders and onsite safety personnel. All were released and resumed duty that day. None necessitated referral or transport to healthcare providers. Gold Creek has followed up with these employees since the incident and no further problems or complaints have been reported."

"With the nitrogen, they died of asphyxiation, they suffocated to death," Anand said, referring to the six workers who died. "But ammonia and bleach, high levels of exposure can create vision problems, breathing problems, skin rashes."

The company also tells 11Alive that two hours later, after some ventilation, it was back to business as usual and even the affected employees returned to work. But Anand says there's a deeper meaning as to why many workers don't get the help in the moment.

"Even though the fire department said no one has to go to the hospital, a lot of these workers don't have insurance, they can't afford bills," she explained. "Going to the ER, we all know costs a lot of money, especially if you're uninsured."

She adds that a lot of workers, who are immigrants, worry about authorities, over fear of retaliation or concerns about their immigration status.

Anand says that while some side effects seem temporary, this exposure could mentally affect them for life.

"It was retriggering. We know from working with this community that they have post-traumatic stress disorder, from the violent death of their co-workers," she said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says it is investigating the incident, however, the agency does not have the power to shut down a worksite.

So what does justice look like? The plant does give these workers much-needed jobs.

"There's a huge turnover rate in the poultry and meat processing industry. It's infamously unsafe," she added. "These folks are making chicken fingers that go to the school cafeteria, as your kids are eating these chicken fingers that these workers are making. And they are risking their lives every day, to put food on the plates of our children, and to provide for their own families."

Anand says all they're asking for is a safe work environment – which includes having more available emergency exits leading outside – and communicating these things effectively to the employees –many who speak Spanish as a first language.

"A lot of these workers are immigrants… they show up here as refugees, they're put in these low wage jobs working their hands until their hands stop working. Working until their death," she said. "I just don't know what it's going to take for us to wake up and care about them. It's imperative that companies put people over production."

Before You Leave, Check This Out