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Fish appear unharmed by chemical spill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For all the inconvenience it caused, the recent Elk River chemical spill doesn't appear to have killed any fish.

I use the phrase "doesn't appear to have killed" because it's too early to know for certain.

Jeff Hansbarger, district fisheries biologist for the state Division of Natural Resources, has repeatedly surveyed the area downstream from the tank farm where the spill took place, and he hasn't found any dead or dying fish.

"I heard about the spill for the first time on [Jan. 9, the day it occurred]," Hansbarger said. "I was very concerned there might be a fish kill, so I drove down there [from Point Pleasant] and was looking around by dawn the next morning."

Hansbarger combed the Elk's banks for dead or distressed fish, but didn't see any.

"You could still smell the chemical pretty strongly, but other than that there was no evidence the spill had harmed any aquatic life," he said. "I came back [the day after that] and did another search, and I still didn't turn up anything."

Three days after the spill, Hansbarger and an assistant brought a boat and made a more comprehensive sweep of the lower Elk and the Kanawha River downstream from the mouth of the Elk. "We didn't find anything then, either," he said.

On Jan. 15, Hansbarger brought one of the DNR's electrofishing boats and surveyed the Elk from the spill site downstream.

"We found fish," he reported. "In fact, we caught a couple of muskies right below the spill site."

Most of the fish Hansbarger and his crew captured were rough fish - buffalo (similar to carp) and redhorse suckers. The survey did turn up white bass and channel catfish as well as a sauger, which biologists consider an "indicator species" for clean water.

"Those are probably what should be expected in that part of the Elk," he said. "The river in that stretch also has smallmouth bass and bluegills, but under the water and temperature conditions at the time, I wouldn't have expected to see those."

Hansbarger consulted an expert at the University of South Carolina, who theorized that fish were able to detect the spreading chemical plume and swim away from it.

"He said this particular chemical was light enough that it stayed high in the water column, toward the river's surface, at a time when most of the fish were hugging the bottom due to low water temperatures," Hansbarger said. "He believes any fish that detected the chemical probably just skedaddled out of there."

Though Hansbarger considers the lack of dead or distressed fish to be a positive sign, Hansbarger isn't quite ready to issue a clean bill of health.

"There's always the chance that big fish escaped the chemicals but very small fish didn't," he said.

"Also, people should keep in mind that water temperatures are very cold at this time of year. If fish did swim through the chemical plume, their [cold-blooded] metabolisms might be very slow to uptake the chemicals and have any harmful effects begin to manifest themselves. And if any fish did die, the cold water would likely delay decomposition and keep them from floating to the surface very quickly."

Until he knows for sure whether or not that's the case, Hansbarger plans to keep searching the Elk and Kanawha for fish carcasses.

"I've handed out cards to lots of people who work near the river and see it regularly," he said. "I've been checking Facebook for posts about dead fish. A couple of people have said they saw a dead fish or two, but when I checked them out I wasn't able to confirm those personally. That's why I'm continuing to look."


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