SOUTH MISSISSIPPI — Authorities are trying to determine if a paper mill in Bogalusa, La., was the source of contamination that caused a large fish kill on the Pearl River, an important river for the threatened Gulf sturgeon, an ancient fish species.
Yesterday, investigators with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality said they had inspected the Temple-Inland Inc. paper plant in the Washington Parish lumber town. But officials said they had not figured out the exact source of the fish kill and were awaiting test results due in four to five days. DEQ says the paper mill reported a problem last week at its wastewater plant.
Meanwhile, authorities are telling people to avoid the river and not eat fish from it from between Bogalusa and Poplarville southwards to around Slidell, La.
The fish kill was reported to state biologists Saturday and biologists have surveyed 45 miles of the river. They say thousands of fish have died, including paddlefish, eel, catfish, bass, bluegill and shad.
DEQ said a slug of partially treated or untreated wastewater got into the river and may have caused the fish kill.
Louisiana health officials said no drinking water has been affected.
Barry Kohl, an environmental sciences adjunct professor at Tulane University who has studied the Pearl River, said the paper mill has been a source of pollution in the past. He said it was too early to know what caused this fish kill, but that pollution from the paper mill was a likely source. The waste from the plant is highly organic, he said, and if a slug of it got into the river it could deplete the oxygen and kill fish.
Carolyn Elmore, a spokeswoman for Temple-Inland, said late Monday that the company had nothing to add to its earlier statement that the mill “may have exceeded our maximum daily permit levels for discharge to the Pearl River. This discharge could have lowered dissolved oxygen levels in the Pearl River below those required to sustain a healthy fish population.”
According to the statement, the mill remains shuttered until operations are “restored to normal.”
Kohl said the river is important habitat for the Gulf sturgeon, a fish species that has been around for 200 million years.
Gulf sturgeon can live up to 70 years, grow longer than nine feet and weigh more than 300 pounds. Before 1900, they thrived in the northern Gulf of Mexico, down to west-central Florida. But overfishing — the sturgeon was taken both for its flesh and for caviar — as well as dams and pollution almost wiped them out. The Endangered Species Act has protected sturgeon since 1991.