Louisiana Officials Continue to Investigate Pearl River Fish Kill

Release Date: 08/26/2011

August 26, 2011 – Louisiana officials continue to investigate the impacts of the Temple-Inland discharge of “black liquor” on the Pearl River’s fisheries resources. Numerous levels of assessment are underway by the Louisiana departments of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), Health and Hospitals (DHH), and Environmental Quality (DEQ), including seafood safety testing, waterbody quality tests, testing of private water wells, evaluation of baseline species and efforts to determine the of effects on fish and other aquatic life as a result of the wastewater discharge that occurred on Tuesday, August 9, 2011. State officials continue to work together to assess the incident impact and long-term recovery plans.

Seafood Testing

Fisheries biologists with LDWF collected seafood samples throughout the Pearl River and at the mouth of the river in the Rigolets. DHH sanitarians also collected oyster samples from areas near the mouth of the river to be tested. All of the samples were sent to an independent laboratory in Metairie, La., contracted by DHH.

Eurofins Central Analytical Laboratory, the company which helped test Louisiana’s seafood during the Gulf oil spill, is testing samples from this incident for volatile and semi-volatile organic contaminants. These types of chemicals don’t typically build up in seafood tissue, however, state officials are having these tests conducted out of an abundance of caution.

Determining Fisheries Impacts and Restitution Claims

LDWF is also working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS), Louisiana State University fisheries experts, and officials with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to determine the loss of aquatic life, including fish and freshwater mussels.

Initially, more than 26 species of freshwater fish were identified in the fish kill.  They include Paddlefish, American eel, catfish, bass and bluegill. Species with similar characteristics were grouped together in some cases due to the massive volume of fish and the expansive range of the kill.   There are, for example, numerous specific species of darter fish in the Pearl River only distinguishable by variations on the dorsal fin, small color variations or other minute differences.  Experts with the Tulane University Natural History Museum are working with LDWF fisheries biologists to establish a baseline for species native to the Pearl River. That baseline will serve as the “before” picture for restitution claims.

A total restitution value for the fish kill will be compiled once the investigation is complete.  LDWF officials are working with USFWS in their investigation into the deaths of federally listed threatened and endangered species.   More than 26 threatened gulf sturgeons were involved in the incident.  Work is currently underway to determine its status of the inflated heelsplitter, a threatened freshwater mussel species.  In addition to state restitution values for fish and freshwater mussel deaths, Temple-Inland may be subject to civil or criminal fines for those species covered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Officials with LDWF are also developing a three-year monitoring plan to monitor the re-establishment of Pearl River aquatic resources.   Selected sampling gears, including electrofishing and nets will be employed under standardized protocol to ensure that results accurately represent the status of recovery.   LDWF plans to continue to pursue an agreement with Temple-Inland by which the responsible party would pay for the necessary fisheries resource monitoring.

Waterbody Safety, Monitoring and Ongoing Investigation

DEQ’s Incident Command post is still up and running at Temple-Inland and serves as a central point for DEQ staff to coordinate sampling events and record data. An overflight of the impacted area by DEQ occurred on Wednesday, August 24; during that overflight no dead fish were observed. Overflights will continue to determine if any additional fish remain. If additional fish are located, they will be cleaned up and disposed of by a team on standby for that purpose.

The compliance order and amended compliance order for Temple-Inland have been issued. This is the first step in the legal process for issuing penalties and for ensuring upgrades are in place to better treat and monitor discharges from the facility.

The company has been given permission to begin a limited discharge, which will commence today, August 26. Yesterday, DEQ staff was on site walking through the plan with the company in preparation for the discharge.

DEQ continues to collect water samples along various portions of the river.

The survey will gather water quality information that will be used to restore and protect the waterbody. Data gathered from the survey will be used to identify suspected pollutants in the waterbody that may cause or contribute to low oxygen levels in the water.

Citizens are asked not to tamper with the equipment that will be mounted on rebar, fence posts, white PVC poles or buoys. During the survey, a bright red, non-toxic dye will be injected into the water. Citizens who notice the red coloration of the water should not be alarmed. The water body will return to its normal state and color by the end of the day. The dye is used to determine flow and distribution patterns of the bayou. These patterns are used to establish sampling points for the survey.

DEQ will also install electronic monitoring equipment in conjunction with a water sampling survey on Pearl River in Washington and St. Tammany parishes.

Water Safety Measures

DHH has tested 18 privately owned domestic water wells located near the Pearl River. Results showed that water from these wells is safe to drink under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking water standards. DHH collected and tested samples from these private water wells chosen by St. Tammany and Washington parish officials and were within a quarter of a mile of the Pearl River. In Louisiana, the individual well owner is responsible for maintaining and testing their private well. However, in this instance, Temple-Inland is paying for the state’s testing.

Public Health Resources

The Louisiana Poison Center has received 13 calls in the past week regarding the Pearl River spill. Callers are generally requesting details on public health, consuming fish and swimming in affected water. Anyone with questions regarding potential health effects can call the Louisiana Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is charged with managing and protecting Louisiana's abundant natural resources. For more information, visit us at www.wlf.louisiana.gov on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ldwffb or follow us on Twitter @LDWF.

For press inquiries, Olivia Watkins at 225-610-8660 or owatkins@wlf.la.gov.