In a first-of-its-kind case, a Laurel County company has been fined $50,000 for dumping pollution into a creek and killing two rare fish.
The fish in question: blackside dace, which usually are less than 3 inches long.
They are found only in streams that feed the Cumberland River in southeast Kentucky and northeast Tennessee.
Nami Resources Co. of London pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court on Wednesday to violating the federal Endangered Species and Clean Water acts by dumping pollutants used in drilling a natural gas well into Acorn Fork in Knox County.
"It's common knowledge that there are blackside dace in that area and that it is a threatened species of fish," said Kyle Edelen, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.
Bob Snow, a senior special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said it was the first case he knows of involving someone harming blackside dace, and the largest fine in an Endangered Species Act case that he has seen in his nine years working in Kentucky.
He said the outcome was a result of the cooperation his agency is getting from the U.S. attorney's office.
The violation took place from May to August 2007.Nami paid $25,000 for violating the Clean Water Act and $25,000 for violating the Endangered Species Act. Edelen said those were the amounts suggested by his office, and the company agreed to pay them.
David Jorjani, an attorney for Nami, said the company was preparing a statement on the matter. Nami's office in London referred a reporter to Judge B. Wilson II, a Lexington lawyer, who did not return a call.
The blackside dace is listed as threatened by the Endangered Species Act.
It is found in cool, upland streams in forested areas. It prefers clear water and refuses to mate when water is clouded by silt.
Edelen said the change in color where chemicals were used in drilling and fracturing could easily be seen in Acorn Fork.
The dace, Phoxinus cumberlandensis, was not recognized as a species until 1975. It has been protected since 1987.
Scientists say its numbers have been diminished by coal mining and oil and gas drilling in the region.
It also faces a severe threat from an insect spreading through the region called the hemlock woolly adelgid. The insect threatens to wipe out hemlocks that grow along creeks, keeping them cool and shaded and minimizing runoff.
Despite their size, blackside dace have garnered considerable attention over the years.
In 1997, for example, logging plans were shelved for more than 400 acres in Daniel Boone National Forest in Whitley and McCreary counties because of concerns about the fish.