After a month of speculation, fears about E. coli contamination and frustrations over a lost fishing spot, residents near Clear Fork Creek and the Gasper River might finally have some answers.
Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet officials recently completed their investigation into the fish kill in late May that affected an estimated 16 miles of local waterways and issued three citations to a Logan County cattle feedlot off Shaker Museum Road.
The cabinet released a Notice of Violation on June 19 to Woodward Feed Lot of Auburn. The Daily News obtained the NOV on Tuesday.
“Runoff from the site 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 NOV said.
The Daily News’ attempts to reach feedlot owner Wade Woodward were unsuccessful.
The cattle feedlot is in Auburn, about a quarter-mile from the head of Clear Fork Creek. There is a spring located about a quarter-mile away. These waterways are connected to the feedlot due to karst drainage paths, according to William Baker, an environmental control supervisor at the Division of Water regional office who was involved in the investigation.
During Memorial Day weekend, dead fish were first reported in the Gasper River about 16 miles from the Clear Fork Creek head – five miles downstream of the Gasper River and Clear Fork Creek crossing and another 11 miles downstream of the creek head.
The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources investigation into the length and severity of the fish kill is ongoing. Local fisheries biologist Eric Cummins earlier estimated that “thousands of fish” died in a five-mile stretch of the Gasper River.
Decreased oxygen concentrations cause most fish kills and typically indicate the presence of bacteria or nutrients, often from untreated sewage, fertilizer runoff or manure.
When nitrates and phosphorous enter waterways, phytoplankton can rapidly reproduce and reduce oxygen levels in a process called eutrophication.
Different fish species require different amounts of oxygen. Warmwater species like bass typically need levels of 5 milligrams per liter, but the concentration thresholds and duration at those thresholds required for fish die-offs are debated.
The Kentucky Division of Water recorded dissolved oxygen levels of 2 milligrams per liter in water samples collected along Gasper River and Clear Fork Creek on May 28.
Further investigation from the division revealed “elevated” E. coli levels in the creek and river, as well as the presence of nitrogen and phosphorous – but the levels found in the water samples did not signal the need for a water quality advisory, according to Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesperson John Mura.
“We tried to find out what was in the water,” Mura said. “And that led us to look where it may have come from, which led us to looking at this feedlot, which led us to see they weren’t managing it properly.”
The NOV listed three violations: The facility failed to implement an effective Agriculture Water Quality Plan, pollutants entered and contributed to the pollution of the waters of the Commonwealth and the waters of the Commonwealth were degraded.
“Violations of the above cited statute(s) and/or regulation(s) are subject to a civil penalty per day per violation. Violations carry civil penalties of up to $25,000 per day per violation depending on the statutes/regulations violated,” the NOV said.
The Division of Water has referred the case to the Division of Enforcement. Negotiations over the violations and subsequent enforcement and penalties “can take months,” Mura said.
Officials were not immediately able to say Wednesday whether the feedlot had previous violations.
The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife has a separate system of enforcement for violations and penalties.
Since Oct. 1, 2018, the state DFWR was notified about or investigated 12 fish kills. Between fiscal year 2017-18, the DFWR was notified or investigated 14 fish kills, according to DFWR spokesperson Kevin Kelly.
Statewide, the last big fish kill event occurred after the Bardstown-based Barton 1792 distillery collapsed in July 2018, releasing bourbon and brandy into nearby waterways and killing an estimated 800-plus fish.
“Every one of these (fish kill events) is unique because there are no two situations that are exactly alike,” Mura said.
Biologists involved in the investigation have suggested that it could take years before aquatic life returns to levels preceding the fish kill event.