Georgia wildlife officials have completed a report on a September fish kill in Wilkinson County that points toward a BASF kaolin mining operation as the likely cause.
However, the report does not reach a definite conclusion.
The state Environmental Protection Division also conducted an investigation and has received a copy of the report by the Wildlife Resources Division but is “still evaluating the data” to see if it can identify the cause of the fish kill, said Jane Hendricks, a program manager in the EPD watershed protection branch.
Hendricks would not answer questions about whether a kaolin mine seemed to be the source.
“Part of what we have to figure out is whether we can draw any conclusions at all,” she said.
The Wildlife Resources Division report, issued Nov. 15, estimated the number of fish killed to be 4,100 and put their value at about $11,700. Together with the cost of the division’s investigation, the report put the total cost to the state at about $20,800. That doesn’t include the time and expense associated with the parallel EPD investigation.
The report indicates that water samples in Commissioner and Little Commissioner creeks showed the water was very acidic with high aluminum levels starting somewhere between BASF’s two kaolin facilities on Little Commissioner Creek.
Hendricks said BASF’s water discharge permits do not limit the amount of water it can release from these two mines, including two outfalls at its Gordon facility and seven at its McIntyre facility. The permits do limit turbidity, floating solids and acidity of the waste water released from its facilities.
Donna Jakubowski, a spokeswoman for BASF, said the company adheres to state and federal regulations and takes its responsibility to protect the environment seriously.
“Based on what we’ve read in the DNR report, there’s no evidence that the fish kill is related to BASF’s operations,” Jakubowski said. “BASF is permitted by the state to discharge treated process water into the creek and did not exceed the approved water quality permit levels during the period in question.”
The report states that alum, a chemical used to reduce the cloudiness of water in kaolin settling ponds, can rapidly increase acidity and make the water unnaturally clear, as it was in Little Commissioner and Commissioner creeks during the days following the fish kill. Kaolin companies sometimes also add calcium, which can increase the hardness of water. (Water tests also showed the water in some places was almost 10 times “harder” than what might be considered normal.)
When alum combines with water it can produce aluminum. The report states that the combined high acidity of the water with increased aluminum levels are toxic to fish.
The day after the fish kill was reported, EPD and Wildlife Resource Division officials visited kaolin-settling ponds at BASF, as well as the places where the company released water from the ponds to a swampy area of Little Commissioner Creek. Both live and dead minnows were observed, although a BASF official said they had been pumped into the creek from a settling pond, the report stated.
The report noted 1.5 inches of rain falling between Sept. 23 and Sept. 24, which coincided with a 300 percent increase in stream flow.
“It had not rained significantly since July 19 and the area was in an ‘exceptional drought’ so it seemed unusual that the stream flow could rise so precipitously with a 1.5 inch rain,” the report states.
At the peak of the increased stream flow, the combined BASF releases were contributing the vast majority of the flow to the stream, although the company reported no releases at all between Sept. 24 and the time the fish kill was noticed.
Samples were taken from the tissue of the dead fish and analyzed by a fish disease lab at Auburn University. The report states that Auburn scientists indicated by phone that there was no evidence of disease or parasites and suggested the fish most likely died due to environmental factors such as poor water quality.
Fisheries biologist Steve Schleiger, who wrote the report, said that normally it’s possible to follow a trail of dead fish to the source of a fish kill, but in this case the habitat in the upstream section of Little Commissioner Creek is so poor that there are few fish there to start with. That makes it harder to tell where the problem started.
The Altamaha Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy organization that works to improve water quality in the river and its tributaries, watched the fish kill closely.
“Fish kills this fall in kaolin country give EPD an excellent opportunity to increase its monitoring and regulator efforts in regards to the mining of kaolin,” said the organization’s executive director, Deborah Sheppard. “This is important because of the long-term impacts associated with this industry, and we’d like to see EPD make an aggressive effort to find out what happened with the Wilkinson fish kill and hold those responsible accountable.”
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.