A little less than two weeks ago, Ed Ledford watched a big chunk of his plastics recycling business near Summerville, Ga., go up in a huge cloud of smoke.
The largest fire to hit Chattooga County in almost three decades consumed a brick former cotton mill building that housed a portion of Ledford's North Georgia Textile Supply Co.
Now, Ledford hopes to get his 35-employee operation back in business by the end of the week at three metal-sided warehouses that firefighters saved at the recycling complex, located in the unincorporated neighborhood of Berryton three miles southwest of Summerville.
"We won't be going full blast, but we've just got to get our people back [working]," Ledford said Monday. "You can either sit and cry and moan about it, or you can get to work and recover."
He added, "I'll always be grateful to the firefighters."
There are no issues with air or water quality at the site, according to a statement from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
Ledford hired a contractor who installed devices to minimize stormwater runoff into nearby Raccoon Creek, said Kevin Chambers, spokesman for the state agency.
"We are just keeping an eye on that," he said.
The agency also is monitoring removal of solid waste from the site to make sure it's done properly, Chambers said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitored air quality during the fire, which began the night of July 27. Maps on an EPA website page devoted to the "Summerville Mill Fire" show the amount of particulate matter spread by the fire on July 28, 29 and 30.
For example, on July 28 between about 6 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., an air monitoring station showed an "unhealthy" average level of particulate matter just east of Summerville, but "good" levels on Norton Road and on U.S. Highway 27 at the Floyd County line.
The EPA's on-scene coordinator said residents without special breathing problems should be fine -- provided they adhered to the county's advice to evacuate within a quarter mile of the blaze, half a mile downwind and to "shelter in place" within five miles of the fire.
"The county made a really good call," Leo Francendese said. "Heed the warnings. That's why they put them out."
Smoke from the blaze could have been much worse, he said. The fire mainly consumed plastics consisting of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which is less harmful than polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.
Firefighters prevented a warehouse full of PVC from burning, Francendese said.
"A small handful of firefighters protected that building. They really did an amazing job," he said. "If that building would have burned, we would have dealt with chlorinated products in the air -- more accurately, a chlorine cloud."
Francendese called in four pieces of heavy equipment -- a bulldozer and three trackhoes -- to help pull apart bales of plastic so firefighters could extinguish them. The federal government will bill Ledford for the expense.
"It could be upward of $250,000," Francendese said.
Ledford said his business has insurance. North Georgia Textile Supply Co., founded in 1970 by Ledford's father, sorts and grades plastics from sources such as the carpet industry.
Chattooga County Sole Commissioner Jason Winters said Ledford, a south Walker County resident, has been easy to work with and very appreciative of the efforts of firefighters and others who fought the fire.
"He has told me he wants to rebuild the business. But he wants to do it in a way that this cannot happen again," Winters said.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or 423-757-6651.
Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...