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Chemical spill on Tinker Creek caused by puncture to storage tank, DEQ officials say

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A small puncture in a plastic tank holding an agricultural-use chemical caused a spill that killed thousands of fish in Tinker Creek, environmental officials said Monday.

The release has been contained and there are no reports of public exposure, according Bill Hayden, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Officials are investigating what caused a tank holding Termix 5301 to spring a leak over the weekend at Crop Production Services on Simmons Drive in Cloverdale.

Termix 5301 is a substance that is added to herbicide and pesticide products before they are applied to crops.

At the time of the leak, the chemical was being held in a 250-gallon plastic tank, with steel reinforcements around the outside, in a fenced-off storage area. The tank was less than 30 months old, leading officials at Crop Production Services to wonder if the puncture was caused by an accident or an act of vandalism.

“Something struck the tank from the outside,” said Tim Smith, a manager at the business. “It was not a failure of the tank itself.”

Once the chemical began to leak, rain washed an estimated 165 gallons into a tributary of Tinker Creek.

By early Saturday, dead fish could be seen along the tributary in Botetourt County and downstream as Tinker Creek flows south through Roanoke County. DEQ officials said the death count could reach the tens of thousands on a stretch from Clearwater Avenue to Hollins Road, a distance of about 4.5 miles.

All sizes and types of fish were affected. The most visible kills were of sunfish, rock bass, smallmouth bass and large suckers. Smaller species such as minnows and darters also perished, as did crayfish.

Residents of the area should avoid using the creek until further notice, DEQ officials said. That means no swimming, fishing, or using the water for crops or animals.

Crop Production Services has accepted responsibility for the spill and has hired a hazardous materials removal company for the cleanup.

“We do apologize for the impact this had on our neighbors and the fish in nearby Tinker Creek,” Smith said.

Although the chemical and the soil it saturated in the immediate area of the spill have been removed, the contamination downstream could not be eradicated because it has already dissolved into the water. By Sunday afternoon, foam and cloudy water caused by the chemical had largely dissipated, Hayden said.

The Termix 5301 that leaked was being stored in higher concentrations than what is applied to crops. But Smith said the level was within the manufacturer’s guidelines. Crop Production Services ships the chemical to farming customers along the East Coast.

Drinking water in the area was not affected.

Tinker Creek does not drain into any of the four reservoirs that supply public water to customers of the Western Virginia Water Authority. The risk to private wells along the creek is “extremely low,” DEQ said, because their water supply does not come from the surface runoff or groundwater seepage that flows into the creek.

DEQ will continue to monitor the creek and oversee its cleanup.

More than a dozen locations have been checked, from where the creek enters the Roanoke River to the spot just upstream of the spill. In nearly all of the locations, the appearance of the stream has returned to normal.

“Once the material is diluted and flushed downstream, no long-term impacts to the stream are anticipated,” Hayden wrote in a statement Monday.

As the fish decompose and float downstream, there will be “several days of unpleasantness along Tinker Creek,” Hayden wrote. “However, the stream will recover from the kill and life will return.”

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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