6,400 gallons of ethyl alcohol spill at Heaven Hill

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By Erin L. McCoy

About 6,400 gallons of ethyl alcohol spilled behind a Heaven Hill Distilleries facility off KY 49, Loretto Road, Saturday afternoon.


Roughly a tanker truck’s worth of 180-proof, potable alcohol, used for blending at Heaven Hill, poured into a nearby creek and lake as firefighters, state environmental regulators and the Nelson County Emergency Management Agency were called to the scene.

The accident occurred as a tanker truck was transferring the alcohol into a tank behind the distillery’s main bottling building.

“They were filling a tank that has a connection to a smaller tank and the valve to the smaller tank was open and it overflowed the tank,” said Larry Kass, director of corporate communications at Heaven Hill Distilleries.

The alcohol flowed across a parking lot, down a hill, into Town Creek and on into Tours Lake (also known as Barton Lake) nearby, according to Nelson County Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Osborne. A valve in a containment wall that normally would have stopped the liquid had been left open during recent rains, according to Kass. 

“Their containment wall has a drain valve on it and that drain valve happened to be open,” Bardstown-Nelson County firefighter Joe Marks explained.

About 4,000 gallons entered the creek, according to a press release from John C. Rogers, an environmental control supervisor/ERT on-scene coordinator with the Columbia Regional Office of the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection, which sent one member of the Kentucky Environmental Response Team to the scene of the spill.

Osborne said the spill was not noticed immediately, though it is unclear how much time may have passed before someone at the distillery observed the spill. Kass said he was unaware whether it was noticed immediately or not.

The Bardstown-Nelson County Fire Department was dispatched shortly after 3 p.m. By the time they arrived, a Heaven Hill employee had shut the containment valve, but alcohol continued pouring across the parking lot. 

“It ran down over the hill, and we took shovels and made kind of an earthen dam to contain it,” Marks said. A man with a backhoe helped build the dam, he added.

Because several inches of rain had fallen earlier that week, the soil wasn’t able to soak up much of the alcohol, Marks said. 

The Nelson County EMA was also at the scene. Heaven Hill called out a hazardous materials consultant.

“There’s the flammability. There’s an inhalation hazard just from the fumes. There’s an environmental hazard to fish,” Marks explained.

However, Osborne said while the alcohol may have been dangerous where it ran across the parking lot, he believed it was diluted quite a bit on its way down the hill and into the lake.

“Most of it dissipated within the parking lot with the limestone rock, and the area that it went across was pretty flat and level,” he said, explaining the parking lot surface contains limestone, which absorbs liquid easily.

Water in the creek and lake further diluted the alcohol, along with heavy rains in Nelson County Monday, he added.

According to Rogers, the size of the lake should have helped to dilute the alcohol.

“Barton Lake — I think they estimate that (it contains) something like 50 million gallons of water. That’s really kind of what we hope for in this situation,” Rogers said Monday. “Four-thousand gallons in 50 million — we should have a good dilution factor, and with the rainfall today.”

Members of the Kentucky Environmental Response Team returned to the scene Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to observe whether any wildlife was impacted by the spill.

“Only a couple fish died from the initial spill,” the press release states. No further deaths were noted in the days that followed, according to Rogers. Sampling of dissolved oxygen, pH and temperature showed all within the normal range Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

“All of our readings were still normal today, just like they have been for the entire incident,” Rogers said Tuesday. “We’re going to monitor it one more day, and if it still stays the same, we’ll discontinue our effort tomorrow.”

A top layer of about 2 inches of soil that was saturated with the alcohol has been removed, Rogers added.

The Bardstown Wastewater Treatment Plant is also conducting more tests than usual — twice a day, Rogers said.

Osborne said he noticed little effect on wildlife the day of the spill.

“The fish we were observing at the time when I left were still lively,” Osborne said.

Kass said he was confident Heaven Hill took the correct steps to report the spill.

“Once it happened we went through the proper channels,” he said. “We’ve met all the remediation protocols.”

Tours Lake is on property belonging to Barton Brands, which was called out to open a fence Saturday and allow emergency workers access to the lake, according to Osborne.

“It is an environmental issue,” Osborne acknowledged, adding that dissipation was quick and, as of Monday, he didn’t believe any danger remained. “To my knowledge, to this point there has been no significant damage.”

Firefighters were on scene until about 5:30 p.m.