A massive slug of Jim Beam bourbon from last week’s warehouse fire entered the Ohio River on Monday after traveling more than 20 miles down the Kentucky River, according to the latest from Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet.
The plume is expected to hug the shoreline and dilute as it enters the Ohio River where it could continue to pose a limited threat to fish and other aquatic life, said John Mura, cabinet spokesman.
“The plume, which is about 23 miles long, entered the Ohio River very early this morning and began dissipating,” Mura said.
Some residents in Frankfort have reported odor and taste issues with drinking water sourced from the Kentucky River, but the supply is safe, Mura said.
Lightning struck the Versailles-based Jim Beam warehouse last Tuesday, igniting 45,000 barrels of bourbon and sending a plume of ash and alcohol into nearby waterways.
Runoff from the now-extinguished fire is killing fish in the Kentucky River.
Kentucky’s Division of Fish and Wildlife is already characterizing the spill as a “severe fish kill,” though officials are still assessing the damage to aquatic life in nearby waterways including the Kentucky River and Glenn Creek.
The fish are basically suffocating because there’s not enough oxygen in the water, said Margaret Carreiro, a Kentucky-based retired biology professor.
Bacteria in the waterways digest the alcohol and consume oxygen to produce energy. When it comes to a river’s dissolved oxygen, bacteria basically “get first dibs.” And Carreiro said this leaves less behind for fish, mollusks and higher lifeforms, which tend to die first.
It’s not clear how much of an impact the bourbon spill has had on the river, but “You’ve killed a lot of things so they’ve got to get repopulated again. It will take some time,” Carreiro said.
Mura said the Energy and Environment Cabinet has brought in equipment to help add oxygen back into the water, though he noted it’s probably “not as helpful as we’d like.”
Once the emergency phase is over, the cabinet plans to issue a violation to Jim Beam for the spill, he said.
Similarly, thousands of fish died last year when a Barton 1792 Warehouse collapsed in June, polluting a nearby creek.
That makes Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper Jason Flickner question what kind of pollution controls are in place at bourbon warehouses to limit impacts on local waterways in the case of a disaster.
“There are stormwater controls that could certainly be considered for these sites and they should not be let off the hook simply because they are a symbol of the state of Kentucky,” Flickner said.
A Jim Beam spokeswoman said in an email the company is focused on minimizing environmental impacts and has built berms at the site to avoid further runoff.
"We are conducting water sampling and water field screening to get real-time results of water quality on the river, as part of a coordinated effort,” Emily York said.
Until the pollution dilutes in the Ohio River, the state is warning residents to avoid eating contaminated fish, no matter how tempting the thought of those bourbon-marinated fish may be.