Jim Beam and Friends: 7 Distillery fires that caused environmental havoc

When Fire, Water and Liquor mix, Who pays?

Uniquely among all species on the planet, homo sapiens have freed themselves from natural laws.  Machines that fly defy gravity, and medical transplants delay the ageing process. Primarily this is due to our ability to cognitively interpret what is happening in our environment, particularly the paradigm shifts like industrial revolutions and the internet, and then to shape the environment to fit our needs, rather than the other way around.

As a result, human beings have become a major geological force in a relatively short space of time.

But, being human, when the effects that we have on our natural environment are damaging or unwelcome, our intelligence is sufficiently well-developed that we have the ability to ignore them, justify them or “PR them away”, often in  pursuit of profit.

Here is an example of one such effect:

Source: cnbc

Source: cnbc

On 2nd July 2019, a lightning strike set fire to a warehouse in McCracken Pike, Kentucky, destroying approximately 45,000 barrels of maturing whiskey.  (That’s “whiskey with an “e””, once memorably described by one of my fellow Scots as “that abomination called Bourboon (with an “o”)”, but actually not a bad tipple once you get used to it). 

The fire raged for 4 days and a 23 mile “plume” of whiskey developed in the nearby Glenn’s Creak and fed into the Kentucky River. In the week it took to dissipate, the whiskey resulted in severe depletion of dissolved oxygen and the death of thousands of fish.

In a similar event in May 2000, a 28-mile plume of Wild Turkey leaked into the Kentucky River and it is estimated to have killed 227,000 fish.  As a result of the Jim Beam warehouse fire, officials have already indicated that the Jim Beam owners, Beam Suntory, can expect a similarly large fine.

Additional reporting is available on You tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9Y-zZ-SC5o

Is this rare?

Sadly, similar cases appear quite often with a similar case reported at OZ Tyler Distillery in Owensboro on 17 June 2019 and a further warehouse collapse occurred in June 2018.

Both cases resulted in severe damage to the warehouses took weeks to secure the site and then painstakingly recover a barrel at a time from the unstable heap.

Other examples in the US include:

Source: Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet

Source: Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet

So what?

In events such as those described above, it is evident that human-beings are refusing to recognise the latest paradigm shift, namely that this sort of environmental damage is no longer acceptable to the world at large.  Nor is a fine the whole answer; whilst financial penalties should discourage similar vandalism in future, they will not restore the fragile freshwater eco-systems nor the thousands of fish killed by the whiskey plumes.

What should happen now to manage the crisis?

Distilleries were traditionally set up next to rivers because clean water is a critical ingredient for consumer alcohol.  Indeed, many distilleries make their local water a marketing asset. But with tolerance for environmental damage reducing exponentially, do distilleries need to be near rivers now?  Why can they not move to a location where accidental whiskey plumes cannot enter rivers? A non-negotiable order to re-locate to a safer location or face compulsory closure is a far more effective response than a fine, which is after all only money.

And if distilleries do not wish to move to a safer location, they should be held to an internationally recognised safety standard, such as the “Control of Major Accident Hazards” (COMAH) Regulations 2015 which, in addition to measures to reduce the risks, also require producers to register their premises, have an emergency plan and be assessed in the implementation of the plan.  This standard is applied in the UK, where Beam Suntory, the owners of Jim Beam, have six distilleries. And distillery fires are far less common in the UK, largely due to the application of a recognised standard.

The only example I could find was a recent fire at a Gin distillery in Yorkshire and here the cause is unclear but believed to be some form of explosion.  

So, as human beings, we should acknowledge the potential damage that we can do to the environment, preferably before it happens, and we should recognise the paradigm shift that such natural devastation is no longer acceptable.  And with both of those conclusions endorsed, we should, as the only species on the planet able to control our effect on the natural environment, be prepared to enforce stringent measures to prevent occurrence or recurrence. A fine achieves very little indeed.

Given the cost of the damage to Beam Suntory, both in terms of money and reputation, one does have to ask why the drinks industry doesn’t identify international best practice and implement it at all sites around the world!  

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