Just one dead fish sitting in the hot sun does not make for a pleasant smell, but imagine the stench from hundreds of thousands of dead fish spread out over 60 miles baking in 90 degree heat. Thanks to a spill of waste material from a paper mill, that is exactly what residents along Louisiana’s Pearl River experienced recently. Because of a faulty waste management system, a mill in Bogalusa released a high concentration of waste that the mill owner refers to as “black tar.” The liquid effectively sucked all of the oxygen out of a large section of the river, killing every breathing organism in its path, including federally protected gulf sturgeon, catfish, and flounder.

Pearl River Louisiana, dead fish Pearl River Louisiana, waste spill Pearl River Louisiana, paper mill spill Pearl River Louisiana, paper mill spill, waste material spillimage © Mr. Littlehand via Creative Commons

The spill occurred on August 9th, and the scene, needless to say, was sickening. Fish carcasses floated atop the water for 60 miles, and more than 400 people worked from boats in the sweltering heat scooping dead fish from the river. The wildlife damage is severe, and only made worse because of the recent drought conditions that lowered the river and slowed its flow. In addition to the dead sturgeon and other fish, ringed sawback turtles, and heelsplitter mussels were also found dead.

The situation was made worse because the mill owner, Temple-Inland, did not even notify Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality of the spill until August 13. The DEQ first found out about the dead fish after calls from the media. The water has improved greatly, according to the DEQ, and most of the dead animals were removed by Monday. There was no evidence of toxins in the river, meaning that the situation was more of a biological problem, which the DEQ said was encouraging.

Testing of the water is still underway, and there is a ban on fishing and swimming in the river. A class action lawsuit has been filed against the mill owner, Temple-Inland, on behalf of all those affected by the waste discharge. There was a collective shock and anger at how the plant handled the situation.

“Frankly, this is the kind of behavior you would expect from an industrial plant 30 years ago,” said John Lopez, acting director of Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, where some of the dead fish were found. “It’s not how modern plants are run in terms of their contingency planning, monitoring and their response to the public.”


Lead image (not of dead fish in the Pearl River) © Phoenix Wolf-Ray