State investigating after Caldwell Co. creek turned red from chicken waste kills fish

A rural creek turned red from chicken waste has brought state agencies investigating and led to frustrated landowners. (KEYE TV)

A rural creek turned red from chicken waste has brought state agencies investigating and led to frustrated landowners.

When landowners on farms northeast of Luling checked their property last week, they found a creek turned red. After a little investigating, they found out the change in color was from a waste discharge from a chicken farm upstream.

"We got a whole creek full of it and it's still running a little bit," landowner Martin Pratka said.

Pratka said the first thing he did was move his cattle so they wouldn't drink the water. Then on Sunday, he noticed several dead fish floating in the stream.

"If it kills fish here it's going to kill fish over there once it gets thick enough," Pratka said.

According to local and state agencies, the farm, owned by the Mississippi based Cal-Maine Foods, discharged the waste last week. The waste water was from a sort of lagoon on the property that stores the chicken droppings. Usually the water is irrigated slowly throughout the property, but with recent rains the lagoon was in danger of overflowing. That's why it had to discharge the water into the creek. The business primarily produces eggs and not chicken meat.

Landowners say they heard or saw it pumping on several occasions last week.

"The water was running so deep it was going across the road here," Pratka said.

KEYE TV reached out to Cal-Maine Foods but has not had a call back.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said it is investigating.

TCEQ would not confirm if the company had the permit required to discharge waste. There is a TCEQ general permit which says, "This general permit provides authorization for facilities defined or designated as CAFOs to discharge manure, sludge, and wastewater associated with the operation of a CAFO into or adjacent to water in the state."

CAFO is Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. If it did have the permit, the company may not face any charges or fines associated with the discharge.

Local agencies like the Plum Creek Watershed Partnership is also testing the water and says it's " working with industry, landowners and regulatory entities to collect information, ensure continued dialogue and identify best practices for preventing similar events in the future."

Plum Creek Watershed said it could have lab results back at noon on Tuesday.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife "kills and spills" team also came out to investigate Monday evening. That's because of the several fish Pratka found dead. Travis Tidwell tested the water and said the waste has definitely had an impact.

"There's low dissolved oxygen in the water," Tidwell said. "There's a lot of dissolved solids in the water from the waste that washed down stream."

Tidwell didn't know if it would be dangerous for Pratka's cattle to drink the water, but he said it has a high enough dissolved solid count that the cattle should not drink the water.

"The water's probably too salty to drink right now," Tidwell said.

Tidwell said while the farm may not be liable for the discharge it could be liable for killing the fish.

"From what we find here in this investigation, the chicken farm is going to be a responsible party for damages done to the aquatic resources," Tidwell said.

Tidwell walked up and down the creek Monday night and said the red waste water is clearing up near the chicken farm and doesn't look like it has spread too much downstream to Plum Creek.

Still, Pratka is worried that the wastewater will go downstream and affect his neighbors. He's also worried this will happen again.

"Well it looked like to me that's poor planning, they need to plan ahead," Pratka said. "We got to try and stop it so it don't happen again, you know in the future."