Environment

As nearly 10,000 people descended on the small town of Owenton, Kentucky, for the annual county fair earlier this month, so too did the miles-long bourbon plume leftover from the fire at the Jim Beam warehouse upriver from the drinking water supply.

In the wake of the bourbon spill, thousands of fish died as dissolved oxygen levels plummeted in the Kentucky River.

But when Owen County residents turned on their taps, nothing but cool clean water came out.

Lightning struck the Jim Beam warehouse two days before July 4 setting aflame 45,000 barrels of bourbon and sending alcohol and ash into nearby waterways.

The next day, Owen County Judge Executive Casey Ellis received a call from Kentucky American Water.

“The morning after the incident I received a call,” Ellis said. “She was just giving us an update on what happened and what might happen.”

The plume reached Frankfort first. There, residents reported drinking water tainted with foul odors, though state officials reassured locals the supply was safe to drink.

That lead time gave Kentucky American Water enough time to consider its  options. Utility officials decided to seal off the intake on the Kentucky River, said Susan Lancho, spokeswoman.

“And so basically what we were able to do was turn off the treatment plant located right there on the Owen County line and wait for that plume to pass and so none of the water from the fire ever entered our plant,” she said.

The Owenton Water Treatment Plant sat idle for about three days as the bourbon plume passed through on its way to the Ohio River, Lancho said.

In the meantime, Owenton arranged for water delivery with emergency management.

“You know, we were just worried about the supply here,” Ellis said.

Fortunately, that was an unnecessary precaution.

Kentucky American Water reversed the flow on a 31-mile-long pipe that stretches from Owen County to a central distribution system in the Lexington/Fayette County area.

It just so happens Owenton sits at a lower elevation than Lexington. Ordinarily, that means the treatment plant pumps water uphill, but this time gravity took its course.

“Since it was gravity fed all they had to do was bypass the pumps,” said Terry Humphries, environmental engineering supervisor at the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Division of Water.

The 3,700 Kentucky American Water customers of Owenton and all those who arrived for the county fair’s popular demolition derby were none the wiser.

“Our focus is maintaining great quality water service for our customers and that’s what we were able to do,” Lancho said.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.