Edward F. Poolos of Jasper, deputy commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said Tuesday that negotiations with Tyson Foods are underway "to hold Tyson accountable" for the recent Black Warrior River - adding it will be about five years for nature to correct itself from the spill.
He explained that the negotiations involve ways that Tyson can help restore the area in the wake of the spill. Poolos said Monday night any environmental penalties - which would include financial fines - would come from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), at that agency's discretion.
Poolos brought up the issue during a speech to the Rotary Club of Jasper on Tuesday, in reaction to the Tyson spill that has lead to massive fish kills in the area, environmental protests from the Sipsey Heritage Commission and threats of lawsuits.
The controversy resulted from a June 6 spill of partially treated sewage and waste from River Valley Ingredients, a Tyson Farms Inc. plant in Hanceville, into Dave Young Creek, which flows into Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River.
The Sipsey Fork River Race was canceled due to fear the waters were not safe for human recreation.
Poolos said, "The Tyson spill was a terrible event," noting he also worked for 25 years with ADEM, including nine in Montgomery and another 15 years in North Alabama. He managed ADEM’s North Alabama Field Office in Decatur (from Cullman headed north, essentially) the last 12 years before coming to Conservation in October 2017.
"The Tyson spill did interact between my old job and my current job," he said. "And as the Department of Conservation, we are the trustee for all the state lands. We are the trustee for that fishery and we are the trustee for that river.
"And so the thing I will tell you is we have our report, we have our study and report ready to hold Tyson accountable for the mistake that they made. Our report is complete. We are in the negotiation phases of that," he said.
Poolos said it is a hard thing to put a value on the river and how much the state is losing because people cannot get on the water for recreation.
"It is something that has taken us a little bit of time to put a number to," he said.
"Right now, we are in the negotiation phases with Tyson. As a Walker Countian, I'm glad where we are headed in this," he said. "I'm not talking about the environmental side. That is an ADEM issue. This is the Department of Conservation and a river issue. But we are excited. We believe in the next few days, maybe in the next couple of weeks, we are going to have an announcement that will try to make us whole.
"It was a tragedy. It was an event that we're going to try to get the river back in the shape it was prior. We appreciate industry coming to Alabama, and when they mess up, that is our job to hold them accountable, and that's what we're going to do."
Answering questions next, he noted the fish kill happened in 28 miles of a creek.
"We value the fish that were killed, and that is how we are coming up with part of our determination on how much they owe the State of Alabama, based on what they've taken from us," he said. "Part of that is determined by what it would cost us to value that fish if we were going to grow it."
He said the problem is that on a river area like the Mulberry, one can look at darters, creek chubs and other small fish eaten by larger fish, and which are not there anymore. You can't go to a hatchery and buy the small fish to put back into the river.
"We could go and stock bass and go out there. And guess what? Those bass have absolutely nothing to eat, and it is wasting our time and wasting our money. It would just be a PR campaign, and we're not there to make Tyson look good."
He then referred to "natural attenuation," involving natural processes to clean up the environmental problem. He said in 2016, the same Tyson plant had a sulfuric acid spill that killed 7 miles of the river.
"Three years later, we were just getting back to about 90 percent, back to pre-spill conditions," he said. "We knew that took about three years. Our estimation is that it is going to be a five-year window for natural attenuation to get this back to pre-spill conditions for this one, and that is part of our calculations."
He said the agency will look at how much the fish were worth and how much the recreation was worth on the river, now and five years onward.
"We will not be restocking," allowing for natural attenuation, he said. "But then they are going to pay for that issue."