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‘Tens of Thousands’ of Fish Dying From Jim Beam Bourbon Runoff

July 8, 2019, 7:40 PM

Crews on pumping barges in the Kentucky River worked around the clock July 8 in efforts to save fish suffocating in water contaminated with runoff from a 45,000-barrel Jim Beam warehouse fire.

As a kill count in the popular Kentucky recreational fishing river near Frankfort continued into the “tens of thousands,” a response team of federal, state, local and private workers sought to measure the damage and “aerate” the water along a 23-mile long alcohol plume, according to a state news release.

The July 2 fire at the Beam Suntory distillery—which the company said was likely sparked by a lightning strike—is causing one of the largest whiskey fire accidents in state history.

A July 7 video posted by the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Resources shows a state boat motoring through the greenish-yellow river with hundreds of dead fish floating along the surface.

The fish aren’t dying from alcohol poisoning in the river. They just can’t breathe.

Sugar from the alcohol created a microbe feeding frenzy, which reduces the oxygen levels in the water and suffocates the fish. The barges are mixing air into the water using pumps, hoping to provide more oxygen to fish, which state workers have recorded acting distressed on the river’s surface gulping air.

Lightning Strikes Twice

The accident appears to be having a smaller impact on wildlife as a 2000 fire that destroyed 17,281 barrels in a Wild Turkey warehouse, said Kevin Kelly, spokesperson for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

The death count of fish will take the state time to determine, but it’s unlikely to reach the “hundreds of thousands” of fish the state estimates were killed in the Wild Turkey incident.

Other than fish kills, the Jim Beam and Wild Turkey accidents have several parallels, including lightning and impacts on drinking water.

Both facilities were located near the Kentucky River. Jim Beam’s bourbon ran into a nearby creek, then flowed into the Kentucky River and is now entering the Ohio River. From there, the large Ohio River and its strong currents are anticipated to disperse the alcohol plume, John Mura, spokesperson for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet said.

The Wild Turkey facility was located along a cliff next to the Kentucky River. Once lightning started a fire, unknown gallons of whiskey spilled into the river and a nearby water treatment plant, leading the area to temporarily halt water service.

“The reason they quit pumping is they didn’t know whether to charge by the drink or by the gallon coming into town,” Jimmy Russell, master distiller with Wild Turkey told the University of Kentucky in an oral history project on the fire.

The Jim Beam incident has had a smaller impact on drinking water. There have been some reports of locals saying there’s a slight smell and discoloration to their water, but water treatment plants have tested the water and it’s safe to drink, Mura said.

The state estimates the response will include about four more days of work aerating the plume. From there, the fish kill count, and the states next clean-up steps, will take much more time.

Following its incident, Wild Turkey assisted the state in restocking fish into the Kentucky River.

Beam Suntory didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but the state said the company has hired two environmental consulting companies to aid with cleanup.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ebert in Columbus, Ohio at aebert@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Nora Macaluso at nmacaluso@bloomberglaw.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com