After a massive and devastating fire at a Jim Beam bourbon warehouse in Kentucky, the wildlife in the nearby Kentucky River is now paying the price.
CBS affiliate WKYT in Kentucky captured the post-fire carnage, with images showing large numbers of dead fish floating downstream.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now on-scene at the smouldering ruins of the warehouse, leading the charge to assist state and local authorities with the damage cleanup and assessment.
The fire broke out just before midnight on Tuesday at a warehouse used to store bourbon in barrels for aging, firefighters said. Several fire crews responded but they couldn’t get close to the building due to the intense heat created by the burning alcohol. The fire was so intense that it melted lights on the firetrucks, authorities said Wednesday. As of early Friday morning, one structure was still burning.
Fire crews took a careful approach to the blaze, allowing it to rage on so that it could burn away most of the alcohol. They were concerned that blasting the building with water would flush thousands of litres of alcohol into a creek that feeds the Kentucky River, according to Drew Chandler, emergency management director for Woodford County.
“The longer it burns, the more of the distilled spirits burn with it,” Chandler told The Associated Press. “So when they put it out, there will be less contaminated runoff that goes into a drinking-water estuary.”
Initial reports suggest the fire was caused by a lightning strike, according to Jim Beam’s parent company, Beam Suntory.
Chandler also told the AP that leaked alcohol had already contaminated nearby tributary Glenns Creek, saying it was visible on the surface of the water — further verified by multiple pictures posted to social media. Mother Nature lended a helping hand by providing several inches of rain over the last few days, resulting in a dilution of the river pollutants.
John Mura, a spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said he was seeing “fish kill,” an industry term meaning a mass death of fish.
“We’re starting to see fish kill, and we think that it’s very likely to get worse,” said Mura in a statement. He added that authorities are pumping oxygen into the river to help mitigate the negative effects of alcohol on oxygen levels.
WKYT reported that the fish kill is producing a pungent odour near the river, and state authorities have warned fishers and civilians not to eat any of the affected fish.
As of this writing, drinking water for the surrounding community is not expected to be impacted.
WATCH MORE: Massive fire burns down Jim Beam facility in Kentucky
The warehouse was completely destroyed in the blaze, wiping out about 1 per cent of Jim Beam’s bourbon inventory, the company said.
A standard bourbon barrel holds approximately 200 litres of bourbon, meaning about 9 million litres of alcohol went up in the fire.
One barrel can produce approximately 150 to 200 bourbon bottles, according to the Louisville Courier Journal. The paper estimates that 6.75 million bottles were lost in the blaze, based on a 750-millilitre bottle of alcohol.
Losses are anticipated to be more than US$100 million.
— With files from Josh Elliott and The Associated Press