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EDITORIAL: Bourbon spills, fish kills show need for consideration of stricter environmental regs

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By The Kentucky Standard Editorial Board

The importance of bourbon to Kentucky is, without question, significant. From the $8.6 billion of revenue and more than 20,000 jobs produced for Kentucky, to the esteem it gives our state on a global scale, there is no doubt that bourbon is a hot commodity.

But as we look at the impact that the bourbon industry has on the state, we need evaluate the total impact. That impact includes some of the disasters that have occurred at various bourbon distilleries and warehouses over the last several years. The most recent major occurrence was the fire at the Jim Beam warehouse in Versailles in early July that involved approximately 45,000 barrels of bourbon.

As a result of the massive fire, a runoff of bourbon spilled into the Kentucky River, which caused the deaths of thousands of fish and other aquatic wildlife. It was believed that the alcohol plume on the river was over 23 miles long. An estimate of the overall impact on the Kentucky River won’t be available for several weeks as biologists assess the data and crunch the numbers, but it’s certain that the impact will be severe and affect the river for years to come.

This is not the first time that a bourbon spill has affected the environment in Kentucky, but the question that stands out is: What is being done to prevent or lessen the environmental impact?

As was seen in the Kentucky River, when that much bourbon hits the water, the oxygen levels are diminished and fish have no way to breathe. Essentially, they suffocate to death. It was a little over a year ago that a warehouse at the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown collapsed and affected approximately 9,000 barrels of bourbon. There was some runoff that reached Withrow Creek and made its way to the Beech Fork, but had a minimal impact. It could have been worse. It has been worse.

In May 2000 a spill at Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg dumped nearly 200,000 gallons and devastated more than 50 miles of the same river.

Presently, the situation is to try to clean up the spill and divert it away from waterways and tributaries as quickly as possible. But that’s not the preventive answer that is needed, and we will more than likely see more episodes similar to Jim Beam and Barton, more streams and rivers affected, and more fish and other aquatic life dying unless preventive measures are put in place, such as building larger berms around distilleries and warehouses, more frequent safety inspections similar to those at chemical plants and mandatory fire suppression systems in older warehouses.

The bourbon industry is important to Kentucky, but so is our environment. Changes must take place in order to lessen or prevent the impact to our wildlife when fires and collapses do occur, or we will see more occurrences as the bourbon industry continues to grow.