When Bourbon Leaves the Barrel: What Happens to Wildlife When Spills Affect Kentucky’s Water Bodies

By Michaela Lambert

The scene of a fish kill at dam lock No. 3 on the Kentucky River, two days after the July 3, 2019 warehouse fire at Jim Beam. Photo courtesy of the Emergency Response Branch.

Last summer a lightning strike at the Jim Beam warehouses in Woodford County resulted in a fire that destroyed nearly 45,000 barrels, containing 2.5 million gallons of bourbon.

Unaged bourbon, sometimes called “white dog,” flowed into the nearby Glenn’s Creek, which empties into the Kentucky River, concerning anglers, biologists and bourbon connoisseurs alike.

Rob Blair, a member of the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Emergency Response Team, remembers leaving his house around 12:30 a.m. to assess the damage downstream of the spill site.

“I could see the orange glow of the fire, on the clouds above the warehouse, from approximately 10 miles away,” he said. “Upon arrival, I was taken aback by the size and extreme heat of the fire. The Versailles and Frankfort fire departments were already on site and working to contain the fire so that adjacent warehouses wouldn’t burn.”

The Jim Beam warehouse fire on July 3, 2019. Photo courtesy of the Emergency Response Branch.

Within hours, residents and scientists dispatched to the spill started to observe fish in distress, gasping at the surface of the water.

Two major fish kills have occurred in the Central Kentucky portion of the Kentucky River over the past 20 years, both from bourbon spills. What appears alarming at the water’s surface is actually caused by imbalances in the ecosystem below.

In the case of Glenn’s Creek, the bourbon entering the river introduced a huge influx of organic material to the water. The sugars in the alcohol caused an increase in microbial metabolism and reproduction, depleting the dissolved oxygen in the water and leading to the fish kill. Aquatic animals like fish, invertebrates and microbes require adequate oxygen levels in the water to survive. If they cannot flee from areas with low oxygen, they will suffocate as a result.

In the hours and days that followed, as local, state and federal officials worked on the Kentucky River to contain the spill, they saw schools of fish swimming ahead of the alcohol plume, trying to find oxygenated water.

A school of fish tries to outrun the oxygen-depleted waters. Video courtesy of the Energy and Environment Cabinet.

And fish weren’t the only animals of concern. Kentucky’s streams and rivers are home to many freshwater mussels, aquatic insects and amphibians that all have differing tolerances for water pollution.

It can take hours or even days for the effects of such a spill to become obvious, said Doug Dawson, chief environmental scientist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “Fish kills often occur several miles downstream and several hours to days after the initial spill,” he said.

When disasters such as these strike, it’s the government agencies that must work together to minimize the impacts.

After the Jim Beam spill, a unified command made up of Franklin and Owen county’s emergency management, the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Beam Suntory representatives began using a combination of water sampling and water field screening instruments to get real-time results of water quality to determine the location of the 23-mile alcohol plume on a daily basis.

Responding to Environmental Emergencies

Agency roles and efforts must be clear and well-coordinated in order to adequately address environmental emergencies.

When an entity realizes that a spill has occurred, the first step is for the responsible party to call local emergency responders. The next call goes to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Emergency Response Branch to report the spill (1-800-928-2380).

Members of the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Emergency Response Branch deployed aeration units in an attempt to raise dissolved oxygen levels following the bourbon spill. July 6, 2019. Photo courtesy of the Emergency Response Branch.

Responders from the Emergency Response Branch will dispatch to the spill site and work to put in place containment measures, such as berms and dikes, to stop the spread. They will also begin water sampling to quantify the impact of the spill and determine the best ways to mitigate the effects of whatever pollutant has been released.

In response to the Glenn’s Creek spill, the Emergency Response Branch deployed aeration units, which are like the bubblers used in fish tanks but larger, in an attempt to raise dissolved oxygen levels until the bourbon was flushed from the system.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resource’s environmental scientists or fisheries biologists began a daily monitoring of the impact on the biology in the stream. They counted the number, species and sizes of fish killed that would later figure into a calculation of the replacement value of the fish lost.

“It is difficult to determine if federally threatened and endangered species will be affected by a spill due to their rarity,” Dawson said. If there is evidence suggesting such a species is affected, he said, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s Kentucky office will handle the investigation.

Next Steps

After the initial emergency phase is complete, divisions within the Energy and Environment Cabinet continue to work closely with the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

A spill may be referred to the Division of Waste Management’s Superfund Branch, which intervenes when certain contaminants are released into the environment.

Bourbon mixing with river water. Photo courtesy of the Energy and Environment Cabinet.

The Kentucky Division of Enforcement is also notified of the case and assigns a specialist to compile and review the information from the Emergency Response Branch, contractors and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. The division enforces any outstanding remediation necessary and may also propose civil penalties, including monetary penalties, based on factors such as the severity of the violation, environmental impact, culpability, history of non-compliance and economic benefit of the violations.

Justin Schul, environmental control manager with the Division of Enforcement, said that responsible parties may also be given the option of completing a supplemental environmental project to offset some of the civil penalty.

A supplemental environmental project allows the responsible party to put money into projects that provide tangible environmental or public health benefits to the affected communities or environment. These projects must go beyond the requirements of the law and can include things such as stream restoration, putting septic systems in low-income areas or implementing compliance and containment structures that are not required by law.

In December 2019, Jim Beam Brands Co. entered into an agreed order with the Energy and Environment Cabinet, in which the company agreed to pay a $600,000 civil penalty for the spill and reimburse the cabinet $112,074 for its response to the incident. The company is actively working with the cabinet to characterize the impact of the spill and remediate in accordance with Kentucky law.

Good Bourbon and Clean Water

The best bourbon starts with the best water, and preventing spills is by far the best strategy to protect water health.

The Energy and Environment Cabinet is working with the Kentucky Distillers’ Association with its “Sustainable Spirits Initiative” to foster environmental awareness in the spirits industry.

Programs and partnerships like this can help distilleries to reduce the risk of spills, heighten awareness of water quality and increase their environmental stewardship.

Michaela Lambert is an environmental scientist with the Kentucky Division of Water. She has a passion for freshwater systems and wildlife and frequently attends water-related education events.

1 reply »

  1. Really interesting article! I never knew about the aeration units and some of the other methods used by response teams. I learned a lot.


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