Rossville man pleads guilty to copper theft that led to toxic spill

Rossville man pleads guilty to copper theft that led to toxic spill

November 21st, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News
Christopher Shane Nichols

Christopher Shane Nichols

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

A man accused of stealing copper wire outside an abandoned Rossville, Georgia plant, tipping over transformers and sending toxic chemicals into a nearby ditch, has pleaded guilty.

Christopher Shane Nichols will spend four years in prison, followed by 11 years on probation, after his plea Nov. 5 to criminal damage to property and second-degree burglary charges. He also must enroll in a substance abuse treatment center.

Police and environmental cleanup crews rushed to Maple Street in Rossville on March 11 after a neighbor noticed an oily sheen on the water in a drainage ditch. Investigators traced a spill back to the Coats American plant across the street, which Walker County owns but has sat unused for almost two decades. Outside the building, they found 10 transformers tipped on their sides.

Some of those transformers contained polychlorinated biphenyls, a chemical that is supposed to stop the transformers from catching fire. But studies have linked PCBs to cancer, reproductive problems and neurological development issues in children.

Emergency workers tried to contain as much water as possible in the ditch. Tests of water downstream did not reveal any troubling signs, they said.

A couple of days after the spill, Rossville police arrested Nichols and two other men for the theft. Detective Dave Scroggins previously told the Times Free Press they found copper that matched the one from the transformers at Lookout Recycling on West Gordon Avenue, about half a mile north of the Coats American plant.

The copper is flat, about three-fourths of an inch wide with notches cut in it.

"It's cut in a unique way," Scroggins said.

The recycling center was able to tell investigators who sold the copper to them. In addition to Nichols, the police department arrested Travis Lee Prater and Jacob Mark Buckner. They both pleaded guilty to charges of burglary and theft by taking on Aug. 1.

Prater received a sentence of two years in prison, followed by eight years on probation. Buckner received a sentence of 1 year in prison, followed by nine years on probation. All three men agreed to each pay $11,500 in restitution and not to contact each other.

Two days after the spill, Walker County planned to unveil bids to purchase the Coats American plant, which is located at 122 Maple St. The property is about 350,000 square feet and sits around the corner from the Peerless Woolen Mills plant, which developers purchased for $125,000 last year.

But the county put its plans on hold during the cleanup. It needs Environmental Protection Agency approval for each step going forward. In September, the EPA signed off on a plan for a contractor to remove and dispose of the transformers.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.