Petrochemicals found in Flat Branch after fish kill

Wednesday, April 18, 2012 | 8:17 p.m. CDT; updated 4:19 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Seth Lanning, resource assistant for the Missouri Department of Conservation, opens labeled jars for a macro-invertebrate sample taken at Flat Branch on Tuesday. Lanning and other members of the Conservation Department have been working to assess pollution damage following a fire at O'Reilly Auto Parts that led to a 14,000-count fish kill in the creek.

*An earlier version of this article included an incorrect measure of the amount of water used to fight the fire on Business Loop 70.

COLUMBIA — The results are in from water samples taken after the recent fish kill in Flat Branch, linking the death of more than 14,000 fish to an April 1 strip mall fire — the cause of which a city fire marshal said he doubts will be determined. 


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Petrochemicals found in the creek during an investigation into the cause of the fish kill likely contributed to elevated levels of gasoline, waste oils and other chemicals found in samples taken the day after the fire, according to a 12-page document compiled by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The chemicals have been linked to contaminated runoff from the more than 1 million gallons* of water used on the blaze that engulfed O'Reilly Auto Parts and several other Business Loop 70 storefronts. That water then drained into the creek, which is fed by numerous storm drains in downtown Columbia, according to a previous Missourian report.

An estimated 14,749 fish, valued at $4,614, were killed, said Jim Low, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Fish and crawfish were wiped out from Flat Branch Park to Bridge No. 8 on the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail, he said, adding that the the largest number of live fish were found at the confluence of Hinkson Creek and Flat Branch, where fish enter the Flat Branch stream.

Low oxygen levels most likely cause

Renee Bungart, a spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources, said her agency concluded that low oxygen levels were the most likely cause of the fish kill.

Low levels of oxygen were the result of a high carbon demand, said Jack Jones, an MU professor who studies aquatic ecology. When carbon-based products — such as the oil, paint and antifreeze housed in the auto supply store — entered the runoff incompletely combusted, the bacteria that decompose it use oxygen and create carbon dioxide, similar to the way humans breathe.

Oxygen levels in the creek returned to about normal by April 6, Low said.

Contamination examination

Samples from the creek were tested for 105 different values that included pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature, turbidity, 13 petrochemicals, 82 volatile organic acids and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and nitrates.

The highest levels of chemical contaminants were 6.64 parts per million of waste oil at Flat Branch Park and 1.5 parts per million of gasoline at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at Battle Garden Park. These contaminants were measured as total petrochemical hydrocarbons, a mixture of compounds that make up petrochemicals.

"I'm sure these recent rains have washed the rest of carbonaceous matter downstream," Jones said, referring to this past weekend, and that "the high water has dissipated most everything."

Aquatic life could also have been harmed by other chemicals found in the water used to put out the fire, which contained chlorine and chloramines used to treat water and make it drinkable. In recent years, more utilities have begun to use chloramines — derivatives of ammonia — as a secondary disinfectant for drinking water as it moves through pipes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Columbia started adding ammonia to its water in September 2009, said Floyd Turner, manager of the city's water operations. Public outcry led the EPA to create a site answering commonly asked questions about the use of chloramines.

Fire follow-up

Battalion Chief Steven Sapp of the Columbia Fire Department said Tuesday that investigators believe the fire started in the north end of the building that houses O'Reilly's Auto Parts and Adam's Barbershop. Sapp said he was doubtful a cause can be determined because of the extent of damage.

Sapp said he'll be meeting with insurance representatives Friday to continue investigating the fire, at which point damage estimates will be updated. Early damage estimates were $2.5 million for the structure and $4 million for inventory.

Bungart said the Department of Natural Resources does not plan to take any enforcement action at this time.

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Ellis Smith April 19, 2012 | 5:53 a.m.

So how does one control what cannot reasonably be controlled? We certainly don't want people dumping chemicals into the system in any case, but the system itself appears too "fragile."

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle May 3, 2012 | 4:16 p.m.

Just saw a 4-inch long fish in the creek today. Creek is already recovering. Haven't seen the big snapping turtle yet.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 3, 2012 | 4:33 p.m.

Derrick: My farm has a creek with numerous coal outcroppings. It also has several seams of whitish clay. When I collect some clay and mash it up in a bucket of water, the next morning the clay has settled out and ca. 1/32" of burnable oil (prolly from the adjacent the coal bed) is floating on the top. Sometimes I even see a sheen of oil on the surface of still pools.

Yet the creek seems to always have an abundance of fish, blue herons, wood ducks, snakes, snapping turtles, skaters, whirligigs, other insects, and deer/turkeys that drink from it.

Amazing. It's a wonder everything's not dead with all those petrochemicals in there.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle May 3, 2012 | 5:02 p.m.

Petrochemicals may be toxic, but it is also energy that life eventually makes use of. I also think there's a fundamental difference between the casual erosion-timescale exposure your critters get, and the annual 1.06 Gigatons of coal dug up and burned, the nearly 33 Trillion barrels of oil extracted and burned every year, and the roughly 30 Trillion cubic feet of natural gas burned annually.

It's a lot, compared to your creek. It's a staggering amount, compared to your creek.

Just sayin'...

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 3, 2012 | 5:31 p.m.

Derrick: I agree.

My only point was to poke fun at those who panic at an oil sheen without taking other factors into account.

The dose is the poison.

I have no doubt the creek was adversely affected by the recent fire. The data makes sense. I'm unsure whether the toxic effect was petrochemicals themselves or water-soluble chemical formulations contained in various other non-petrochemical products.

I haven't done the volume calculations and do not have the data, but since my creek is intermittent...and generally ends up as pools during the heat of the summer...I wonder just what the localized petrochemical dose IS in those pools...that still have critters.

It appears that most of the non-pool life in my creek does die in the summer due to the most insidious poison of all.

No water.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 3, 2012 | 5:56 p.m.

I live next to, but do not own, one of the local creeks. Its primary water source is storm water runoff and it too "pools" during rainless periods.

pH and concentration of contaminates are large factors in there being life in a body of water. To reduce contaminate concentration add additional water (where that's possible). YOU understand that, but it's amazing how many people react to the concept of concentration as if the speaker were mouthing Chinese!

Water associated with both coal and clay mining tends to be acidic, a weak concentration of sulfuric acid. If the water is temporarily contained, remediation with a weak base will neutralize the acidity (and then the water can be released, after verifying pH).

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 3, 2012 | 6:09 p.m.

Ellis: Lots of limestone in my creek.

Never checked pH, tho. That's a good idea. I have pH paper from 0-14. Rainbow!

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 4, 2012 | 7:16 a.m.

When mining certain clays and processing them into ceramic items such as face bricks and paving bricks (seldom used today for paving streets, but viable for paving driveways, patios, sidewalks, etc.) it is necessary to both treat water from mine sites and to install "scrubbers" for the effluent (stack) gases created during firing the bricks in tunnel (continuous) kilns. In both cases, sulfur is the agent of concern.

Also, I call your attention to the first post above on this topic - mine. Are we talking about an impossible situation here? To achieve control requires that there be a viable means of control; in this case I fail to see one.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle May 19, 2012 | 12:08 p.m.

Good news, the giant snapping turtle is back! I saw it for the first time yesterday evening, in the creek by the MKT bridge next to the rock quarry pool.

(Report Comment)
frank christian May 21, 2012 | 8:29 a.m.

Sorry, but sometimes you seem to cry out for disagreement.

That turtle is no giant. I had one that large or larger in my carport.

"the giant snapping turtle is back!" Has it never occurred to you that, You are more than likely the only one that ever left?

(Report Comment)
John Schultz May 21, 2012 | 11:07 a.m.

Frank, I'm surprised you didn't declare Derrick completely wrong, state that the animal in question was a beaver, and pin the error to Derrick's liberal bias. It's also hard to determine just how big the alleged turtle is since there's not much in the picture to judge scale by.

(Report Comment)
frank christian May 21, 2012 | 4:52 p.m.

My experience with snapping turtle began in early teens at the old Ridgeway's Lake. That one was definitely larger than this and no one referred to it a "giant". Alligator snapping turtles could be referred to as "giant", but this was no alligator turtle. I believe it to be a common snapping turtle. So, ok. Derrick was completely wrong.

A commonly accepted truth among the young fishers of the day I refer to was that if a snapping turtle bites one it will never let go, "'til it thunders". I bet DF didn't even know that!

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle May 25, 2012 | 7:40 p.m.

If anyone is still concerned with the creek's health, the siphon is currently draining 100% of creek flow at the MKT Trail bridge just past the Stadium underpass:

Water flowing in:

Terminal pool:

Dry creek below:

The creek has never gone completely dry this early in the year before, that I know of.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle June 26, 2012 | 5:09 p.m.

Great news: The creek is recovering! Today, I saw lots of crawdads in the pool just below the low-water bridge; about 100 or so ranging in size from 1-4 inches.

I haven't seen this many crawdads in the creek for years; I think they are the 'early homesteaders' on the recovering creek. I also saw several groups of fingerlings swimming around in the same area of the creek today. Yesterday, a large snapping turtle was in the pool, and everything else was hiding.

The siphon under the MKT trail bridge just past the Stadium underpass is still there, however, and as bad as ever. No water has flowed past the siphon since the day after our last heavy rain.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 26, 2012 | 6:10 p.m.

Derrick Fogle wrote:

"Great news: The creek is recovering!"

As someone with some connection to the Cleveland area, and who saw how really bad industrial pollution could get, it is amazing the basic resilience of nature. The lake and river have come back very nicely. And in terms of types of environmental insults, biologically caused disease can wreak havoc in susceptible populations far worse than chemical pollution can, especially if the pollution is controlled or highly intermittent, like this was.

It's likely a greater source of pollution in absolute amounts in that creek is runoff from roads and parking lots. It's just diluted a lot more, so the ecosystems can more or less handle it. Automobiles are the second greatest source of water pollution (agriculture is the first).


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 26, 2012 | 7:57 p.m.

In an above post I mention pH and contaminate concentration as major factors. When the primary origin of a stream is storm water runoff then concentration of contaminates can change quickly and considerably.

Several of our contributors are aware of the role of concentration because they have scientific/technical backgrounds, but in the days when I was working full time I was sometimes amazed at the lack of understanding of the situation. How do we reduce the concentration of a contaminate in water? Add more clean water (although that isn't always the correct answer). Or, how do I reduce the concentration/odor of some airborne contaminate? Increase inflow of air, using fans. (Again, there are some exceptions to that, especially if you have airborne unburned fuel or airborne or otherwise unconfined liquid fuel and a possible ignition source.)

Ah yes, Cleveland. We (our family) left Cleveland just before the river caught fire and burned. Since then the river and lake have significantly improved. Since this turnaround began upon our leaving I am going to take credit for having been the agent for the clean up of Cleveland, Ohio!

(Report Comment)

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