The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has officially concluded its investigation into the Clear Fork Creek-Gasper River fish kill – tallying a total of 53,782 fish deaths in Logan and Warren counties.
Earlier this summer, the discovery of dead fish in the Gasper River about 17 miles from the Clear Fork Creek head prompted multiple state investigations, which eventually tied the high presence of E. coli, nitrates and phosphorous to a cattle feedlot in Auburn.
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet issued a notice of violation to Robert Wade Woodward, the owner of the cattle feedlot, in June.
“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 notice said.
In August, KYDFWR issued a letter of demand to Woodward for releasing a substance into public water that killed wildlife. Citing a state law, the department said anyone violating the wildlife law will be liable to pay “an amount not to exceed the replacement value of the fish and wildlife which has been killed or destroyed.”
KYDFWR calculated the weight by estimating the total fish deaths by each species. For example, about 11,500 minnows were estimated to weigh only about 58 pounds, whereas 95 catfish were estimated to weigh about 178 pounds. The total “sucker, redhorse” count of 4,592 had the highest weight at about 2,274 pounds.
Then, using the total weight and number of fish killed, KYDFWR assigned a value to the fish life at about $31,050. They also directed Woodward to cover about $1,689 for the investigation-related expenses (mostly hours working the case).
The letter of demand, which was issued in August, requested that Woodward pay the nearly $32,740 total within 10 working days from the day he received the letter – adding that “it is in our mutual interest to avoid litigation in this matter.”
That wasn’t the case.
“It’s unresolved at this point,” Kevin Kelly, a KYDRWR spokesman, said last week. “There will be some discussion between the sides before a resolution is met. ... That’s not all that unusual.”
In recent memory, this has been the longest and most severe fish kill in southcentral Kentucky. There was a fish kill in Adair County due to animal manure being overapplied to fertilize a field and eventually spilling into Russell Creek. There was also an oil spill that degraded the waters in the county but ultimately didn’t kill off many fish, according to Eric Cummins, the local fisheries biologist for KYDFWR.
The impacts of the fish kill will be felt for years. Clear Fork Creek may take longer to recover than the Gasper River, which has several tributaries and the ability for certain types of fish like sporting fish to swim upstream and downstream.
“It’ll take some time for the creek to digest the material,” Cummins said, and “it’ll take a while for fish to spawn.”
In particular, bottom-dwelling fish don’t tend to migrate and will likely take a longer time to replenish. Above surface, animals like otters that favor fish might temporarily migrate, but “they’ll come back and explore again,” Cummins said.
The cattle feedlot is about a quarter-mile from the head of Clear Fork Creek and a spring. 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.
Woodward did not respond to a request for comment.