After being diagnosed with cancer, Steve Champion sought refuge and peace in the Gasper River. He had an enchanting encounter with a river otter, which reaffirmed his appreciation for the aquatic ecosystem.
It was his constant as the variables of cancer invaded his life.
When Champion, and many of the other people who boat, fish or swim in the Gasper, learned there was a significant fish kill affecting at least five miles of this river, the resulting experience resembled mourning.
“That hit me really hard,” Champion said. “That’s a really precious place to me.”
In June, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet issued three citations to Robert Wade Woodward, the owner of the Auburn-based cattle feedlot linked to a fish kill in May that affected an estimated 16 miles of local waterways, including 11 miles of Clear Fork Creek and five miles of the Gasper River. The facility failed to implement an effective Agriculture Water Quality Plan; pollutants entered and contributed to the pollution of the waters, and the waters were degraded, according to the cabinet.
“Runoff from the side was observed to enter Clear Fork Creek. An animal carcass was observed at the facility in an advanced state of decay. Liquid feed (and) distillery byproducts are sometimes provided to the animals at this facility,” the Notice of Violation said. (At this time, it’s unclear whether Woodward had previous violations.)
These violations could result in fines from the cabinet and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, which is still completing its own investigation. Mike Hardin, assistant director in the fisheries division of Fish and Wildlife, said that agency’s investigation could be wrapped up in the next month.
But the waters will still take many years to heal, and the question of why pollutants were allowed to be discharged into the river remains unanswered, Champion said.
To prevent agricultural runoff, farmers are encouraged to carefully site their operations and then enact measures to reduce their environmental impact.
Often, farmers seek financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program, which is a voluntary program that helps farmers use environmentally sensitive agricultural land for conservation benefits – or provides financial incentive through the Farm Service Agency to not use sensitive land for farming.
These incentives help farmers create long-term solutions such as planting vegetative species to control soil erosion, improve water quality and enhance wildlife habitat. Some eligible practices include restoring wetlands or creating riparian buffers, filter strips, a grass waterway or a contour grass strip, according to USDA.
In Logan County, CRP payments totaled $53.9 million between 1995 and 2018, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that researches and advocates on the issues of agricultural subsidies, toxic chemicals, drinking water pollutants and corporate accountability.
Woodward received payments totaling $699,489 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 2007 and 2017, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidy Database. The nonprofit reported that Woodward received about $200,000 for livestock subsidies and $493,230 specifically for conservation subsidies, which the USDA distributes through the CRP.
It is unknown, however, whether any of these conservation dollars were intended for use at the cattle feedlot later linked to the fish kill.
The Daily News was unable to reach Woodward.
Craig Givens, a natural resource planner with the Natural Resources Conservation District office in Russellville, has worked with Woodward on some conservation-related projects.
“We’ve done projects with him before. We did not do work with him on the (cattle feedlot) farm with the violation,” Givens said.
While Woodward primarily focuses on livestock, the district has not been involved with the feedlots, according to Givens. Conservation practices are voluntary, and Woodward has sought assistance to reduce erosion with his wheat and corn crops, according to Givens.
“We encourage farmers to use conservation practices. We want them to do that,” Givens said. “It’s not mandated, unless something like (the fish kill) happens.”
Violations can cause farmers to lose eligibility for state share conservation programs, but farmers can take corrective action to become eligible in the future, Givens said.
Farmers should be following an agricultural water quality plan.
“You don’t like to see these things happen. You want to remedy the land the best you can,” Givens said.
Givens suggested that it is very important for farmers to properly locate their sites, which can sometimes be difficult in the area’s karst due to unknown underground connections to waterways.
“Logically, if you’re feeding animals really close to a stream, the probability of manure or something getting in the water is higher,” Givens said.