Monday, August 11, 2003

Bourbon fire causes death of fish in nearby creek

By The Associated Press

WEST POINT, Ky. - A recent fire at a bourbon warehouse has resulted in the killing of nearly all the fish in a nearby creek, prompting the state to issue a notice of violation against Jim Beam, the company that owned the warehouse.

Meanwhile state officials continue to investigate a larger fish kill downstream from the warehouse in the Salt River.

Investigators from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources have yet to determine what killed the fish in Salt River, and it is not known whether the kill was linked to the warehouse fire, said Joseph Schmidt, a scientist with the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection's emergency response division.

At least a few thousand fish died suddenly in the Salt River late last week in a portion of the river that is on the Fort Knox military post. Fish in the river are no longer dying, Schmidt said.

"Access is limited on the (Fort Knox) base, and they are having live ammunition exercises there," Schmidt said. "Fort Knox is cooperating with us and they have stopped the exercises long enough for our team to investigate, but we don't have the answers yet."

After the warehouse caught fire when it was struck by lightning Monday in Nelson County, more than 800,000 gallons of bourbon began burning and much of it flowed into a retaining pond. When the pond overflowed, burning whisky flowed into Withrow Creek.

"There was a thorough, high-percentage kill of nearly all aquatic life in that stream," Schmidt said.

The fish were killed by a combination of being exposed to a lethal concentration of alcohol and by a lack of oxygen in the water that occurs after microorganisms are attracted to the alcohol and use up too much of the oxygen, Schmidt said.

In the course of about 50 miles, Withrow Creek flows into the Beech Fork, which empties into the Rolling Fork, which flows into the Salt River, Schmidt said. The Salt River meets the Ohio River near West Point.

Regardless of whether the warehouse fire is linked to the Salt River fish kill, Schmidt said his department has already determined Jim Beam was at fault in Withrow Creek. The state will be seeking to recoup the money it spent responding to the fire and cleaning up the affected waterways. Those costs have yet to be calculated, he said.

"So far Jim Beam has been very cooperative, but a whole series of factors will go into the decision (about any further fines)," Schmidt said.

Wayne Davis, environmental section chief for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said the Salt River fish appear to have been dead for about three days. That's enough time, he said, given the rains last week, to have made it downstream from where the bourbon ran into the water in Nelson County. Still, he said until results of water-quality tests are known, a connection with the bourbon fire can't be established.

In 2000, a fire destroyed a seven-story Wild Turkey warehouse in Anderson County, causing a spill into the Kentucky River that left hundreds of thousands of fish dead for 66 miles. Wild Turkey paid $256,000 to the state.

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