ANDERSON, Ind.--Riverfront residents knew
something was wrong when carp began leaping 7 feet out of the water and
thrashing about on shore. Before long, dead carp and minnows were piling up on
Hundreds of thousands of fish - more than 85
tons - have collected along a 50-mile stretch of the White River since the water
was poisoned five weeks ago by what investigators suspect was an industrial
polishing agent used at an auto parts plant.
"It is like someone dropped a nuclear
bomb," said Josh McDermott, who lives near the river. "The fish had
jumped 6 or 7 feet onto the shore. It was like they were jumping out of the
water to try and get away from whatever it is."
State and federal officials still are trying
to pinpoint the source of what has become one of the worst fish kills ever in
While the full effects won't be known for
months, federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal investigation,
environmentalists are condemning the state's response as too slow, and opponents
of Democratic Gov. Frank O'Bannon are using it to try to undermine his
Catfish, bass, sunfish and other game
species all died between Anderson and Indianapolis along the White River, which
supplies 60 percent of the drinking water to 800,000 people in and around
The water was polluted even before the fish
kill. Industries line the banks upstream from Indianapolis. Swimming is not
permitted, and though boating and fishing are popular, health officials issue
warnings each year about the number and species of fish that are safe to eat.
State environmental officials believe that
dangerous amounts of sodium dimethyldithiocarbamate, or DMDK, entered Anderson's
wastewater treatment plant about Dec. 11 and killed microbes that are needed to
break down ammonia from raw sewage.
Then, environmental officials said, the high
levels of ammonia and carbon disulfide, a byproduct of DMDK, were released into
the river. Both chemicals are dangerous to aquatic life.
Ten industrial companies in Anderson filter
their waste through the treatment plant. Only one - Guide Corp., which makes
lights and other auto parts - uses DMDK, according to the Department of
Exactly how the DMDK got into the water is
not clear, but Guide is supposed to pretreat its waste before releasing it to
the city treatment plant, environmental officials said.
Guide has denied responsibility for the
Even if Guide is not responsible, it could
be fined up to $50,000 for twice refusing to allow state environmental
inspectors inside its plant. On Jan. 12, state officials obtained a search
warrant and went inside to question employees and examine records.
Guide spokesman Raquel Bahamonde said the
company simply wants to "ensure it can reasonably and responsibly comply
with the department's continued requests for information without disrupting its
Last week, Guide hired a new chairman and
chief executive. It said the change was unrelated to the investigation.
Guide employees are not the only ones under
fire. The Anderson wastewater treatment plant was criticized for allowing a week
to pass before reporting elevated levels of ammonia in its discharge.
And environmentalists have held news
conferences in front of piles of dead fish, complaining that the state responded
too slowly and failed to keep the public informed.
The state said it acted on the information
it had at the time. Environmental Management Commissioner Lori Kaplan said state
officials contacted a wastewater treatment plant in Anderson and the Madison
County Health Department immediately after authorities were notified that fish
were dying in the river.
In an election year, the controversy is also
surfacing in Indiana's governor's race. The Republicans are accusing O'Bannon's
administration of bungling the state's response to the fish kill.
In his 1996 campaign, O'Bannon used TV
commercials to attack his GOP opponent, former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen
Goldsmith, over a sewage release in the city that killed 500,000 fish in the
This time around, John Price, an
Indianapolis lawyer seeking the GOP nomination for governor, stood by dead fish
on the riverbank and filmed his own commercial, saying he wants to protect
Indiana's rivers. He has also said he would have handled the fish kill better
O'Bannon accused the GOP of playing
politics. During his State of the State address last week, he proposed doubling
the fines for criminal environmental violations.
"Make no mistake about it, any polluter
that contaminates our rivers or befouls our air will be held accountable under
the law," O'Bannon said.
In the meantime, the Indianapolis Water Co.
has increased chlorine treatment and is drawing more of its water from other
sources as a precaution.
The Department of Natural Resources said it
is too soon to say how long it will take the river to recover.
"You cannot take away in a week what
took so many years for nature to place there and expect that things will recover
miraculously," spokesman Stephen Sellers said.
SOURCE: The Associated Press