From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 104, Number 31 - August 2, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Green River spill a mystery

by Alecia Warren

The limp corpses of at least 300 brown trout and white fish spread across a concentrated area of Green River shores near Daniel this weekend after a chemical spill that occurred on Tuesday or Wednesday last week.

The spill appeared to only affect about 73 feet of the river in a residential area, located three-fourths of a mile upstream from Hwy 189 just north of Daniel.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which is managing the situation with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Department of Agriculture, hasn’t posted health hazard advisories. Spokespeople from all three agencies are confident the toxin will quickly dilute to a harmless level.

Brian Lovett, DEQ compliance and inspection program officer, said employees of the GFD and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who were alerted to the spill on Friday believe the chemical to be the pesticide malathion — which is deadly to fish and potentially dangerous to humans in large amounts — after they recognized the distinct sulfur and garlic scent from the chemical that left large white globs bobbing across the shallow river water.

They will not be sure, however, until they receive confirmation from laboratory tests of the chemical samples that the Wyoming Department of Agriculture lab in Laramie is currently processing.

Lovett said he heard that someone made reports “around the time” of the spill to a county emergency organization that a spray plane with leaking problems had landed at the Pinedale airport.

No airport employees were working when the plane supposedly landed, however, and the agencies are investigating whether the plane is in any way related to the spill. Hank Uhdens, manager of technical services at the Department of Agriculture, said “everything is just theory at this point.” Because biologists learned of the spill days after the current had swept away much of the toxic evidence, they couldn’t determine how much of the chemical had polluted the river or how far it had spread. The Department of Agriculture will be able to make an estimate on both figures, however, after learning the details of how the chemical was sprayed, including the type of aircraft used, its payload capacity, the weight of the product and weather conditions at the time of the spill.

Malathion has been used in the U.S as an insecticide for the last 50 years, and though usually applied as an ultra-low volume spray by aircraft or truck-mounted sprayers, the chemical is extremely toxic to fish, aquatic invertebrates and amphibians still in their aquatic life stage.

The pesticide is safe to use around humans when applied in accordance with the label’s safety precautions, but at high doses — the rates of which vary according to intended use — the chemical can over-stimulate the nervous system and cause nausea, dizziness or confusion.

Severe poisoning can cause convulsions, respiratory paralysis and death. Biologists from the GFD and DEQ spent four hours on Friday wading into the river and sucking the gelatinous goo with turkey basters, cleaning as much from the river as their available containers could hold.

Globs still remained after they finished, however, and the agencies will assess how much still requires cleaning. The EPA reported that if the chemical runoff reaches downstream drinking water resources, it could form a more toxic compound called malaoxon, created during the chlorination process in water treatment facilities. Lovett said there is little danger of this occurring, however, as malathion is easily biodegradable and should dilute below levels of concern long before reaching the nearest drinking water supply, which Lovett said is a significant distance downstream.

Uhdens said he doesn’t expect that malathion will create long-term effects. For these reasons, the DEQ hasn’t posted advisories against livestock drinking water downstream from the spill, or against locals using the water for irrigation.

Anyone can safely eat fish from the river. Todd Graus, owner of Green Turf Lawnscapes, a lawn and tree plant health care company in Jackson, sprays parks in Pinedale for mosquitoes during the summer. Graus said he is suspicious of the identification of the chemical as malathion.

He doesn’t carry the insecticide, nor do any commercial sprayers in Wyoming that he knows of, he said. Malathion is really only useful for killing fruit flies in California, and can only exterminate mosquitoes when burned with diesel fuel, a practice sprayers haven’t used for nearly 40 years. Every pesticide does have its own unique smell, Graus agreed after hearing about how biologists identified the chemical, and he too can easily recognize them after 30 years as a landscaping consultant.

But sometimes water quality can change a chemical’s scent, and a wide variety of chemicals can create white globules like those found in the Green River, he said. Graus predicted the chemical might have originated from a truck, possibly used by construction crews, which used a suction line to siphon water from the river into a tank, and accidentally created a back flow that released the tank’s chemicals into the river.

“If there’s a chemical in a river, that’s the only way I think of that it would get there,” Graus said.

Uhdens said he thought this explanation was “not likely,” however, as investigators didn’t find track marks from vehicles around the riverbank.

“Malathion is a common product used in many formulations and purposes for insect control,” Uhdens wrote in an e-mail. “Many homeowner products contain malathion and it is readily available for over-the-counter purchase.”

Susan Pape, who lives about 200 feet upstream of where the spill occurred, said DFG officials told her to keep her dogs away from the spill site, but she’s more afraid for the surrounding environment than for herself or her property.

“Three hundred dead fish is 300 dead fish, that’s sort of a World Trade Tower on my part of the river here,” Pape said, adding that she worries that the loss might damage the local food chain.

Already, she said the sky is absent of the blue herons that would swoop to the water’s surface every day to catch fish.

“It’s the most beautiful scene you can imagine,” she said of the area around the spill site. “Why somebody would do this, I just can’t imagine. I want to go spray something pink and obnoxious in their yard.”

Mike Kaul, manager of Two Rivers Emporium outfitting company, said he didn’t notice any impact from the chemical when he took a group fishing for trout just upstream of the spill site on Friday.

Despite this fact and biologists’ announcement that they didn’t observe any chemicals near the public boat launch just downstream of the spill, Kaul said that the spill will damage his business the same way every natural disaster in the west does: word of mouth.

“We have a society that believes everything they read and dramatizes it,” Kaul said. “They’ll think all of our rivers are polluted in Pinedale, that’s the biggest thing I can see happening. We’ve had it with the heat and the fires, I’ve had clients call from all over the country asking, ‘are you burning up? Are the streams even running in Pinedale?’ We’ve had a couple trips cancelled.” Residents who live around the spill, meanwhile, have other concerns.

“I don’t think this is a long term or serious thing at all, but who put it in there?” Pape said. “Why did they do it? Whoever did this really needs to get a life.”

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