News Feature | July 24, 2019

Kentucky Utility Spares Consumers From Bourbon Blast

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga


Following a fire at a major bourbon distillery in Kentucky this month, water treatment workers stepped up to keep a bad situation from becoming even worse.

Alcohol from a storage facility operated by Jim Beam, one of the world’s best-known bourbon producers, created a 23-mile plume in a nearby source water body, eventually finding its way into a more major waterway.

“The alcohol plume is the result of spills from a late-night fire … at the Jim Beam warehouse,” according to The State Journal. ‘The fire destroyed about 45,000 barrels of young Jim beam bourbon, and debris from the fire went into nearby Glenns Creek and then into the Kentucky River.”

Naturally, the catastrophe became top-of-mind for local drinking water treatment operations. But those in a nearby town did not have time to implement a full action plan before there were minor consequences for residents.

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

This served as a warning for utilities farther down the line. Employees of Kentucky American Water, operating the Owenton Water Treatment Plant, decided to seal off the intake to the Kentucky River to let the plume pass. Ultimately, the plant was shut down for three days to avoid the contaminated water.

“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,” Susan Lancho, a utility spokesperson, told WKYU.

To provide water to its system during that time, Kentucky American Water reversed the flow of its pipeline to a central distribution system near Lexington. Owenton is at a lower elevation than Lexington, so the utility bypassed the pumps that normally send water from the former to the latter and let gravity bring its plant the uncontaminated water.

Though thousands of fish reportedly died and there were undoubtedly other environmental consequences of the spill, consumers in Owenton didn’t suffer. The plume has since reached the Ohio River, where it has dissipated.

To read more about how utilities handle surprising contaminants in drinking water sources, visit Water Online’s Drinking Water Contaminant Removal Solutions Center.