Louisville Courier Journal
Published 11:34 AM EDT Sep 9, 2018
BARDSTOWN — Tyree Matthews stands in his backyard, looking toward the sky.
It’s a hot and humid afternoon in the self-proclaimed “Bourbon Capital of the World,” but the shirtless 71-year-old isn't getting much of a tan. Less than 10 yards from his back fence, a five-story warehouse blocks the sun. The massive black cube holds thousands of barrels of bourbon made by the Barton 1792 Distillery.
Matthews doesn't drink bourbon, but it still could kill him.
A similar Barton 1792 warehouse about 600 yards away collapsed in two stages in June and July, sending more than 4,500 tons of wood and flammable booze — equal to nine fully-loaded Boeing 747s — crashing to the ground.
No one was hurt in the collapse — no one lived close by — but it started Matthews thinking about the consequences of 18,000 barrels of whiskey landing on his neon-blue ranch-style home.
More: Thousands of bourbon barrels spill from collapsed warehouse in Kentucky
More: Weeks after first collapse, rest of a Kentucky bourbon warehouse topples
“I lost confidence,” Matthews said. “I have never even thought about it before, but it’s very dangerous.”
Bourbon is more than just a drink in Kentucky. It's woven into the history and the identity of the commonwealth, which produces 95 percent of the nation's bourbon. About 50 distilleries, some older than Kentucky itself, are a huge part of the economy — an $8.5 billion industry providing 17,500 jobs in a region that never seems to have enough of them.
No one questions the importance of bourbon in Kentucky. Nor do they ask many questions about the safety of the old distilleries and barrel warehouses that dot the rolling green hills. Not even when a warehouse collapse sends a tsunami of fish-killing alcohol into nearby streams or when lightning strikes turn them into tornadoes of flame.
In the aftermath of the warehouse collapse, the Courier Journal found that buildings where Kentucky distilleries age their products can go decades without independent inspections for structural weaknesses or safety issues. And local officials who proudly profess love for the local industry are at a loss when asked if the manufacturing process poses a risk to public health and safety.
Take, for example, the failed Barton 1792 warehouse. Bardstown and Nelson County officials can't say for sure, but they think it was built in the “1940s or 1950s.” They have no record of its construction nor anything to show it was ever inspected. As far as they are concerned, if it wasn't newly built or being updated, it didn't need to be.
That's typical in Kentucky.
While alcohol production is closely monitored by state and federal regulators, they focus on tracking sales, collecting taxes and enforcing food and drug regulations. They don't check if a seven-story warehouse is structurally sound or could be at risk of bursting into flames.
That leaves the folks in Maple Hill, where Matthews and dozens of others live in homes that snug up to the old distillery, unsure about the places they call home.
“Before I was not a bit nervous,” Matthews said. “I really wasn’t. Now that (the warehouse) fell, I’m concerned. I live so close to it. Why wouldn’t we be?”
Big bourbon, big danger
The city of Bardstown, with 13,000 residents and at least six major distilleries that include big names like Jim Beam, Barton 1792 and Heaven Hill, is the "Bourbon Capital of the World." In fact, the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival trademarked that phrase to apply only to the town 40 miles from Louisville.
That much bourbon in one place is plenty of reason to raise a glass, but it should also cause concern. Everyone knows a chemical plant poses a hazard, but not everyone realizes industrial production of distilled spirits can be just as dangerous when something goes wrong.
Just last November, for example, two employees of the B.J. Hooker vodka distillery in Texas were severely burned when a spark from a power tool caused alcohol fumes in a warehouse to explode.
Injuries like that are rare in Kentucky, but the threat is real.
In 1996, nearly 4.8 million gallons of whiskey in seven big warehouses caught fire when the Heaven Hill distillery burned. Torrents of burning booze flowed down roads and 500-pound barrels exploded into the air like mortar shells. It could have been worse. No injuries were reported, and more than 100 firefighters were able to keep the blaze from igniting 37 other warehouses.
More: Hundreds of fish killed in leak from bourbon warehouse collapse
None of the warehouses were equipped with automatic sprinklers and the cause of the fire was never determined, according to a 2009 report from the Loss Prevention Symposium. The distillery was not rebuilt at the site, which is now used only for bourbon aging and storage.
"Not a lot has changed" since the fire, Heaven Hill spokesman Josh Hafer said. "All of the warehouses are still made by the same company."
That would be Bardstown-based Buzick Construction, where president Donald Blincoe estimates his company has built at least 100 barrel warehouses in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Blincoe said the fire prompted changes in Kentucky building code.
This year, for example, Heaven Hill is building a new $5 million warehouse. At seven stories, the wood-frame structure will look like its other, much older warehouses, but it will have fire suppression sprinklers and modern electrical, heating and cooling systems. It, like all new barrel warehouses, will be surrounded by ditches and berms to contain spills.
But even basic safety measures like berms aren't required for countless warehouses built before the 1996 fire, Logan Spaulding, Nelson County's head of code enforcement, said.
The 60-plus-year-old Barton 1792 warehouse that collapsed in June, for example, had a basement designed to catch routine spillage, but that wasn't enough to contain the disaster. Nearly 4,000 fish died when runoff from shattered barrels reached nearby Withrow Creek.
There were no uniform building standards at all for barrel warehouses before 1980, when Kentucky adopted the International Building Code, and distilleries aren't required to upgrade old buildings to current code unless they're doing a major remodel. Even then, berms and ditches are optional for old buildings, Spaulding said.
"The older warehouses are not going to have berms unless the owners come in and say they’re going to build them," Spaulding said. “That’s up to them.”
Blincoe said current safety regulations are adequate, but voluntary upgrades are a good idea.
"A lot of these have been standing for a hundred years, it’s probably better if they have containment around them, rather than not," he said. Spaulding estimates 15 to 20 warehouses have been built in Nelson County since the 2000s, all with containment ditches.
But failure to upgrade old buildings can lead to problems worse than spilled bourbon.
In 2003, a lightning strike at a Jim Beam warehouse turned more than 800,000 gallons of bourbon into a spinning cyclone of fire. Firefighters doused two nearby warehouses with water to save them. There were no reports of injuries.
“Flames jumped more than 100 feet high, and burning alcohol flowed into a creek, which firefighters dammed so the blaze couldn’t spread," the 2009 Loss Symposium report said.
Spaulding said the Jim Beam warehouse that burned had no sprinkler system.
In 2010, at the urging of distillers who wanted to simplify new construction permitting, the state for the first time added uniform requirements specific to bourbon warehouses, said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distiller's Association.
One major change: fire suppression systems required in new warehouses taller than five stories.
Still, Spaulding said, few warehouses of any height have sprinklers.
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Bardstown has seen three major bourbon blazes since 1996, but local fire officials say their main response plan is to "turn on the hoses and show up."
Bardstown Fire Chief Bill Mattingly described his department's efforts as reactionary, with a response plan still in the early stages of development 20 years after Heaven Hill burned.
He said his firefighters perform annual fire safety inspections of all distillery buildings and check new construction.
But that's only for the four distilleries within the city limits, Spaulding said. Dozens of warehouses are in the county, where Nelson County Fire Capt. Kevin Gates said his department doesn't have enough staff to do warehouse inspections.
Gregory said none of that adds up to a need for more regulation.
"We hope this is an isolated incident and we don't want to jump to any conclusions," Gregory said. "If we had multiple warehouse collapses in Kentucky, then I'd say there is a need to look into regulation."
Even county building officials say safety and security regulation is best left to the distillers themselves.
In May 2003, Bardstown took on the special distinction of doing all code enforcement inspections for distilleries anywhere in Nelson County, said County Judge-Executive Dean Watts.
Watts said the state has enough to deal with, and that the local government is more in tune with the needs of the distilleries.
Though county inspections are limited to new construction, Watts said that's good enough for him.
"Who likes to spend money if they don't have to?" Watts said. "There's no distillery that wants a warehouse to collapse. There's a lot of money involved."
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Blincoe agreed, saying distilleries care about their neighbors and don't want a disaster. He said many distilleries hire private firms to check their buildings.
“I know that several distillers routinely look at their buildings,” Blincoe said. “They take their neighbor's safety paramount.”
Amy Preske, a spokeswoman for Sazerac, the parent of Barton 1792, said all of its warehouses were inspected by a third-party "expert in barrel warehouse construction" following the collapse. All were deemed safe.
She declined to identify the inspectors or further disclose their findings, however.
Nearly four months after the collapse, Sazerac is still cleaning up and won't know what caused the collapse until they are finished, Preske said.
In Tennessee, distilleries are more transparent.
"We have a long-standing practice of inspecting our warehouses throughout the year, every year for structural integrity," Larry Combs, the Senior Vice President of Jack Daniels, said in a statement. "This has included seismic and geological analysis of all warehouse sites. From this, we have a very proactive practice of maintenance and repair to ensure our warehouses are all structurally sound."
Sazerac is now building a distillery in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where city officials expressed concern after the Barton 1792 warehouse collapse and said future warehouses "should be built with higher standards than the older whiskey barrel warehouse that recently collapsed in Kentucky," according to the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal.
Sam Huddleston, an environmental engineer who will oversee code enforcement for the project, told the Daily News Journal that newer warehouses are simply safer.
"The structural design standards currently in effect and the heavy-construction materials available today are much improved from a safety, strength, and structural integrity standpoint," said Huddleston. "However, a routine of inspection and maintenance is critical to the long-term stability of any constructed facility."
Yet while Murfreesboro's government is taking preventive action, Kentucky lawmakers don't feel the need to make any changes.
"I know that our local government is very invested in regulating the distilleries," said State Rep. Chad McCoy, R-Bardstown. “These distillers are in the business of making bourbon … they more than anyone want to make sure it is safe.”
McCoy is also a member of the Legislature's bourbon trail caucus, which promotes bourbon-related tourism and supports the industry.
Shock and awe
Regardless of the cause, the Barton 1792 collapse was impressive.
"The whole end of it just fell off," construction worker Jeff Vernon told an emergency dispatcher the morning when half the warehouse fell. "...The whole end of the building is gone. It just fell off. One of their big warehouses."
Vernon told the dispatcher he saw reddish-orange dust in the air and heard a rumble followed by a sound he likened to a train going off the tracks.
"I used a little bit of foul language because I was just in awe," Vernon, who was working a few hundred yards away, later told the Courier Journal. "...I didn't know what to think at first and then it come to me that, 'I hope nobody was around it,' because it was a very loud commotion, dust flying."
While nearby residents and workers were panicked and shocked by the warehouse collapse, Blincoe said he believes few are in danger.
Related: Warehouse collapse scares neighbors in the bourbon industry's shadow
“Most of these warehouses have been built long before the neighborhoods. Many haven't fallen yet...," Blincoe said. "I don't think it's anything outside of a rare occurrence."
But Steve Porter, a land use and environmental protection attorney who has represented numerous Louisville residents in claims against businesses in their neighborhoods, disagrees.
Porter said distilleries aren't much different than most factories and pose a similar threat to nearby homes.
“The danger of collapse and fire is a big risk,” Porter said. “A lot of times the warehouse has been there for years and years. And, sure, everything is fine. Until it goes wrong. But even if a new warehouse goes up, it wouldn't be smart to live next to it."
That isn't comforting to neighbors of Barton 1792. The collapsed warehouse was just one of 29 on the distillery's 196 acres. Six of those warehouses wrap around two sides of Maple Hill, Tyree Matthews' small neighborhood.
Stephanie Elliott's roof is about 15 yards from one of the tall white warehouses.
"That makes it scary living here," Elliott, a 38-year-old mother of three, told the Courier Journal after the June collapse. "If it had been this one and not that one it would have taken out our house, or worse."
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Elliott said she started thinking about moving her family for their safety.
Another neighbor, Charles Mattingly, 37, is more reserved but said he recognizes he can't control anything when it comes to Bardstown's bourbon giants.
"They're the big guy and we're the little guy ... it's like a David and Goliath-type thing," Mattingly said. "If they have the money, they're going to win most of the time."
Elliott, Mathews and Mattingly said they haven't heard anything from Barton 1792 or Sazerac about the structural integrity of the warehouses that loom over their homes.
"We've never had any communication at all," Matthews said. "They don't keep us in the loop."
Matthews said he doesn't want to move. He likes his back yard, where his dog sleeps in the warehouse shadow in the heat of the day. He's even gotten used to the black coating of whiskey fungus that stains his green lawnmower.
But since the warehouse collapse, he doesn't see his industrial neighbor in the same light.
"I didn't think it would fall one way or the other," Matthews said. "I don't think they were doing enough to know that the building's structure was weakened. Hopefully, something will change."
Follow Thomas Novelly on Twitter: @TomNovelly