- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 18, 2015

WINLOCK, Wash. (AP) - An oil spill of a different sort appears to have killed hundreds if not thousands of small fish in a Lewis County creek on Tuesday, said a spokesman for the state Ecology Department.

Officials believe vegetable oil and shortening that had recently been delivered to a food warehouse in Winlock washed into Olequa Creek, a tributary of the Cowlitz River, as firefighters doused a fire that destroyed the warehouse early Tuesday. The spill killed fish as far as 7 miles downstream, with what appeared to be a “100 percent kill for 5 miles,” Ecology spokesman Chase Gallagher said.

Agency workers were not immediately able to estimate how many fish had been killed “because the number is so high,” Gallagher said, but it was more likely in the thousands than the hundreds. It also remained unclear how much oil entered the water.

Many of the fish killed near the site of the fire were fingerling salmon, but at least a few larger salmon also died. The Native American name of Olequa Creek means “where salmon come to spawn.”

The fire was reported at Olympic Trading Company in Winlock well before dawn Tuesday, and by 4:30 a.m. firefighters had notified Ecology officials that the oil was seeping into storm drains and into the creek. There was no immediate word on the cause of the fire, but the warehouse was destroyed.

Firefighters put sandbags around the storm drains in an effort to stop the contamination, Andrea Unger, a spill responder with the Ecology Department, told The Chronicle newspaper of Centralia (https://is.gd/ZvWQaC ).

Oil can coat fish, making it difficult for them to breathe. It can also provide nutrients for bacteria in the water, leading to lower levels of dissolved oxygen, suffocating fish, Unger said.

The state hired a Longview-based firm, Cowlitz Clean Sweep, to help contain and clean the spill. Crews were using absorbent pads and vacuum trucks.

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