100 Years of Contamination: The White River fish kills of 1896 and 1999



Looking back on this blog, a reader can probably see my interest in the impact waterways have had on the development and history of Indianapolis. Of course, the main player in the waterway game is the White River. I won’t dwell to long on the interplay between the river and the choice of the site for the city, aside for the now preposterous belief that the river was “navigable” and could be an artery for commerce. As it turns out, the river is navigable, to a degree, but not to the extent of being able to support significant vessels of trade. (histories of the early years of the city note the use of flatboats to transport cargo, such as hogs, south to New Orleans, but only during periods of high water, such as in the spring.)


However, what can be discussed is the impact of Indianapolis and other central Indiana communities have had on the river. The city, its inhabitants, and neighboring municipalities, have dammed the river at several points, redirected its flow for industrial and drinking purposes, and modified its course. And of course, pollution. Human, animal, and industrial waste have been dumped into the river for generations. Today, the river is still seen as being irredeemably polluted. My regular fishing and kayaking trips from Broad Ripple to Riverside Park garner immediate reactions and questions about the river’s polluted status, while the situation on river itself belies the perception of a polluted and unused river (not that there isn’t any pollution…any river running through a major metropolitan area will have pollution).


Recently efforts are being made to promote the White River and make it more of a central feature in Indianapolis and surrounding areas. This includes the White River Plan and the efforts of the Friends of the White River. A partial catalyst for these efforts was a relatively recent event which severely damaged the White River and led to a major clean up and recovery.


It started around the weekend of December 18, 1999, when dead fish began to appear in the White River north of Indianapolis, in between Anderson and Noblesville. As the work week began, more dead fish began to turn up, primarily carp, minnows, and other so called rough fish. Other reports came in of fish acting strangely in the water. An Indianapolis Star article from 2019, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fish kill, quoted John Bundy, the owner a duck decoy company along the river near Perkinsville (north of Noblesville), described the fish as being in their “death throes” from a lack of oxygen.


Indianapolis Star, December 29, 1999

It was not immediately clear what was causing the fish kill. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources, as reported by the Indianapolis Star, noted that the substance at work in the river was unknown, but that the fish kill was believed to have originated at the Anderson wastewater treatment plant. An ammonia contamination was suspected as the effects on the fish were similar. The manager of the Anderson wastewater plant theorized that the substance originated with an industrial customer which discharged the substance into the wastewater system, and overwhelmed the plant processing system, a theory which turned out to be correct.


Meanwhile, Indianapolis officials were waiting for the substance to work its way downstream to the city, while reassuring citizens that the water system would be safe. Over the course of the next few days, the contaminant began to reach Marion County, wreaking havoc with the fish population along the way. On December 27, dead fish were spotted at the Broad Ripple Dam, and increased levels of carbon disulfide are found in the Central Canal. Fish kills were also reported along the White River downstream of Broad Ripple. The water supply remained safe, as the Indianapolis Water Company ("IWC") doubled the amount of chlorine and by Christmas, the company was decreasing its use of water from the White River in anticipation of the contamination reaching the city. Additional water was drawn from Fall Creek, the city’s wellfields, and some water was purchased from the city of Carmel. The Indianapolis Star reported that due to re-routing of water supplies, and increasing output from other sources, numerous water mains begin to break. Between December 25 and 31st, 34 breaks are repaired by IWC crews. Authorities cautioned residents who drew water from wells located in close proximity to the river to avoid using the water.


An early count of dead fish between Anderson and 131st Street by the DNR found 80,000 dead fish. By December 29, 1999, Officials with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management ("IDEM") and the EPA were focused on the actions of the Guide Corporation in Anderson as the possible source of the contamination. Guide was an auto parts manufacturer located on the southside of Anderson, well away from the river and the company repeatedly denied they were the cause. IDEM alleged the contamination was caused by sodium dimethyldithiocarbamate from Guide, which as reported by the Star on December 30, 1999, was a "relatively benign chemical" alone but once added to the water of the river or the Anderson waste treatment plant, could break down into carbon disulfide and become toxic. However, Guide denied this, although they did admit to using sodium diethyldithiocarbamate as a polishing agent, but alleged that the material had no known adverse environmental impact. A $10,000 reward was posted by the state and the IWC for information on the source of the fish kill.


As a result of legal proceedings initiated following the disaster, government investigations, and the efforts of local journalists, it was eventually confirmed that Guide was the responsible party. In 1999, the company had just separated from General Motors and was winding down its metal plating operations at the Anderson site. A water treatment facility was located onsite at the Guide plant, and was used to treat wastewater resulting from the manufacturing operations at the facility. Once the polluted water was treated at Guide's treatment facility, it was discharged into Anderson’s sewer system for additional treatment at the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

(Note: The entire timeline of events at Guide and after the fish kill occurred is long and convoluted. In recognition of the 20th anniversary of the fish kill, the Indianapolis Star published an excellent story about the Guide spill, which is part of a series of White River focused articles by Sarah Bowman, Emily Hopkins, and Robert Scheer. The White River fish kill portion of this series (authored by Sarah Bowman) provides an excellent breakdown of the events of the fish kill and summarizes much of the reporting and legal actions taken in 1999-2000 and as the river recovered. A link to this story is in the ‘Sources’ below.)

During the wind down of operations, heavily polluted machinery and storage tanks were cleaned out, including what the Star described as a “thick yellow sludge,” several inches thick inside storage tanks. Guide then attempted to treat this material in their wastewater treatment plant, versus a specialized facility for those materials. Several corners were cut in the treatment of the polluted water resulting from the clean-up, including the suspension of a process used to clarify the polluted water by letting it sit to allow metals and pollutants to settle to the bottom of the treatment tanks. With this process eliminated, Guide attempted to use the chemical HMP-2000 to help treat the water. HMP-2000 is very toxic to aquatic life, and could only be used in limited amounts. The water was then discharged into the Anderson’s sewer system for treatment at their wastewater treatment plant located along the White River.


The Anderson wastewater plant couldn’t handle the pollution and chemicals being received from Guide, and, as the second of a one-two punch, the bacteria in the Anderson plant used to breakdown the raw sewage was killed off by the Guide chemicals. The result was ammonia and untreated sewage being discharged into the river, along with the pollution from Guide in their attempt to clean their facility. Unfortunately, the timing of the contamination was terrible, as the chlorine system at the Anderson wastewater plant was under repair and not functioning (apparently chlorine is not always needed for treatment during the colder winter months). Had this system been running, it may have mitigated the damage.


Guide site in Anderson. White River is at the top of the image.

The contamination of the White River was considered an environmental disaster of significant magnitude. The director of the DNR at the time of the disaster, Larry Macklin, was quoted by the Star saying that the contamination caused “massive destruction to the ecology of the river.” The DNR’s investigation into the damage eventually found a complete fish kill from the Anderson wastewater outflow to the impoundment above the Broad Ripple Dam, with additional fish kills being reported as far as south of downtown. Dead fish were also found in the Central Canal from its head gates all the way to 16th Street.


A December 30, 1999 report in the Star noted that dead raccoons and muskrats were also being found along the banks of the river. Authorities encouraged local residents to not eat fish from the river. Those using well water within in 50 feet of the river were also cautioned about use of the water, although it does not appear that the contamination caused anyone to become ill from using city water. As noted above, the IWC increased the use of chlorine in the treatment of the water to counteract any pollution which reached the city’s system via the Central Canal.


In the end, an estimated 4.3 million fish (approximately 113 tons) died as a result of the Guide contamination. State leaders faced criticism for the delays in discovering and responding to the contamination. The Star reported that standard water treatments methods (such as extra chlorine) eliminated the contamination on the human consumption side of things, although the Star questioned the state’s preparedness in responding to future environmental public health emergencies. Legal proceedings against Guide resulted in a settlement of $14 million dollars, of which $6 million was allocated to help recovery efforts on the river. Over the next several years, state and local groups, both governmental and non-governmental, took action to rehabilitate and clean up the river and restock fish, in part using funds derived from the settlement with Guide. Today, the river has mostly recovered. Pollution is still an issue, as one would expect for a river which winds its way through a major city and its suburbs. However, from personal experience, fishing is good in the river, and the river provides an excellent paddling experience.

White River recovery sign at the Rocky Ripple public access site.

The White River fish kill of 1999 is still fresh in the memory of Indianapolis, and surrounding communities. However, this was not the first mass contamination event to impact the White River and the city. A similar environmental disaster occurred over 100 years prior, in 1896, which also caused significant damage to the river.


Indianapolis News, June 1, 1896

That event first came to light on Saturday, May 30, 1896, when citizens of Indianapolis and the small towns along the river north of the city, began to find numerous dead fish in the river. In Broad Ripple, dead fish began to flow over the dam and gathered in bunches at its base, and along the banks of the river. In the pooled water upstream from the dam, the Indianapolis News reported that in the shallows the water was yellow-ish, and in deeper water, it was brown and somewhat magenta in color. A “stench” was also described as coming from the river, and could be smelled in Broad Ripple Park. Water seeping through the guard lock where the river water entered the canal was described by the News as “thick and yellow in the cleaner water of the canal.” Dead fish also floated in the canal, and decomposing fish lined its banks. Among the dead fish were many “rough,” or non-game fish, like carp and suckers, although reports also indicated that catfish, bluegill, sunfish, and small fry were among the dead fish. Bass were also found dead, while others were observed as behaving strangely in the water. Turtles, crayfish, and other aquatic life was also found dead. Over the weekend of May 30, 1896, the condition of the river became so offensive Indianapolis police issued a public warning against drinking city water due to fear of contamination (an action which IWC leadership would later criticize as being unnecessary).


Much like their 1999 counterparts, officials with the IWC and local and state authorities set to work tracing the contamination back to its source. In 1896, the source turned out to be the American Strawboard Factory, located along the White River just south of Noblesville. The factory produced various manufactured wood and paper products. Industrial waste resulting from the manufacturing process was stored in a massive 40 acre reservoir. In an era before environmental regulations, or effective remediation technology, the material was left to stagnate in the reservoir, or was discharged into the river, sometimes after running through a gravel and sand filter.


Tracing the pollution back to American Strawboard turned out to not be very difficult, as it was not the first trouble Indianapolis had encountered with this business and the pollution of the river. The American Straw Board operation in Noblesville was constructed in 1890-91, and not long after the river was contaminated by the pollution, or ‘offal’ as it was often called, being discharged straight into the river by the factory after a smaller storage reservoir adjacent to the factory reached its capacity. The IWC filed suit in Federal Court seeking an injunction against the company, thus kicking off several months of litigation.


The IWC was determined by Judge John Baker, to be a “riparian proprietor,” which while not owning the land occupied by the river, still had an interest in the use of the water downstream, including to feed the Central Canal. Initially, the strawboard company requested that legal action by the IWC be delayed, while they attempted to install devices to clean the polluted water discharged from the factory (including the sand filters mentioned above). However, Judge Baker found these actions unsatisfactory, noting in a published decision on October 20, 1893, that “I think the devices of the defendants are almost wholly valueless for the purpose of freeing the water from the pollution…” Judge Baker eventually agreed with the water company’s position regarding the pollution, and granted the request for injunctive relief:


“…where the right of a riparian proprietor to the use and enjoyment of the flow of a stream of pure and wholesome water, free from corruption and pollution, has been actually invaded, and such invasion is necessarily to be continuing, and to operate prospectively and indefinitely, and the extent of the injurious consequences is contingent and of doubtful pecuniary estimation, the writ of injunction is not only permissible, but it affords the only adequate and complete remedy. In my opinion, such a case has been made by the proof in this case. There will be a writ of injunction awarded.”

Indianapolis Water Co. v. American Strawboard Co., 57 F. 1000, 1004 (Oct. 20, 1893)


Arguments from the strawboard factory that others along the river, such as farms and private homes, also polluted the river were dismissed by Baker, who stated that “…it is no answer to a suit for creating and maintaining a nuisance that other, however many, are committing similar acts. Each one is liable to a separate suit and may be restrained.”


The injunction approved by Judge Baker just prevented the pollution from being discharged into the river. American Strawboard doesn’t appear to have attempted to treat or try to dispose of the polluted material. Instead, an additional, but much larger, storage reservoir was brought online soon after to handle increased amounts of polluted material being stored. However, on or about the evening of Thursday, May 28, 1896, the levee separating the settling reservoir from the White River breached when several trees growing adjacent to the levee fell into the river, and presumably weakened the levee to the point that it failed, causing the contents of the 40+ acre reservoir to empty into the river.


On June 1, 1896, an Indianapolis News reporter chartered a boat and travelled the White River from Noblesville to Broad Ripple to witness the condition of the river firsthand. The reporter noted that above American Strawboard, the water was clear. At the strawboard factory, the reporter could observe the break in the levy between the river and the basin, which was estimated at 15 feet wide. At this location three trees were laying in the river (drawing to the left), with their roots back towards the bank and the levy. At the time, workers were attempting to rebuild the levy. Generally, the reporter described the paddle as “not a pleasant trip,” and detailed the stench of the thousands of rotting fish which lined the river south of the American Strawboard factory.


The reporter also spoke to citizens of Noblesville, who, based on the News article, were not concerned about their local industry’s impact on the river, and who “do not seem to consider the pollution of the White River as a very serious matter.” Instead, residents cited the economic impact of the strawboard works had on the city ($2,000 per week paid to employees). One Noblesville resident was reported as saying that “it served Indianapolis right for relying upon the river for its drinking supply,” while also citing the clean water Noblesville had from the wells it used for its water supply.


Images Above: First image is a 1906 map of Noblesville, with the American Strawboard factory identified in red. The blue square is the reservoir that breached. Second image is the present day capture of the same area. Red square is the site of the factory, while the small blue square marks the smaller, original reservoir which was the focus of the initial injunction, while the large blue square is the site of the reservoir that breached in 1896. Third image is the 1892 Sanborn of the American Strawboard factory, with the original reservoir visible on the bottom left.


While initial reports were that the pollution was hitting so called rough fish the hardest, and sparing the sport fish, such as bass, the News reporter identified many dead bass, and that from Noblesville to Broad Ripple there was no sign of a living fish. Livestock was also a concern, as farms were still common in the area between Noblesville and Indianapolis, and measures were taken to prevent livestock from drinking from the river, or from the canal farther south. The News reported that a horse which drank from the canal near downtown died soon thereafter, while other horses and cows at farms which used river water were refusing to drink from the water. A fisherman encountered on the trip theorized that it would be 5 or 6 years before the river would be good for fishing again. Human illness was rare, although the News noted that a group of people became “seriously ill” after drinking spring water at Golden Hill. The report also indicated that it was believed the water was not true spring water, but actually was water from the canal which had filtered underground to feed the water source.


Investigations into the break of the levee at Noblesville and the actions of the Strawboard Company were commenced. Like the citizens of the Noblesville, the head of American Strawboard Factory was cavalier about the impact: The head of the factory, C.E. Macy, was asked about the contamination of the water in Indianapolis and responded with his own question: “So they are finding some bad water in the hydrants down there, are they? I thought Indianapolis Water Company got its water from wells.” Macy was further asked how the levee broke and responded that “I am sure I don’t know. I guess the levee may have been weakened by the storm of Thursday night.”


Macy, in response to a question about the basin taking two years to fill (since the suit by the IWC in 1891), responded that "Yes, but it was not quite full. With that space we made by dumping some of the stuff into the old canal bed I guess we would have been good for another year yet." (Note: The remains of the unfinished Central Canal ran through this part of Noblesville) When asked about the plan for when the basins were full, Macy responded "Oh, well, I don't know about that. I guess we won't cross a bridge before we come to it."


Building off the storm claim from Macy, the company claimed that a tornado the night of Thursday, May 28 had knocked down the trees which grew along the levee which resulted in the structure being compromised and breaching. However, interviews with individuals who were fishing and camping along the stretch of river near the American Strawboard Works that evening, reported that the evening in question was clear and calm. There was terrible tornado which hit St. Louis on May 28, 1898, although I could find no mention of a similar storm in the Indianapolis area on that date. There were storms in the area on Wednesday, May 27, which could have caused the damage. The IWC and other officials accused American Strawboard of purposefully cutting the levee to release the estimated 600,000 gallons of pollution. However, it does not appear evidence of an intentional action was ever found.


Interestingly, news reports related to the river pollution indicate that a secondary scandal was brewing in Indianapolis, namely the realization that some river water was findings its way into the city's water. Some seemed aware of what the News referred to as the “pleasing fiction” that the city only drew water from wells. When initially formed, the water company’s charter reportedly forbade use of river water, but it was subsequently amended to allow the use of water from the White River, as long as it was filtered. With the rapidly growing city, wells and water from Fall Creek would result in a shortfall for the city, thus the water company began using river water, although it was claimed the usage was not direct, but resulted in water seeping into the company's storage galleries from the river. At the time, the Central Canal was primarily being used for ice production, and to power mills and turbines in downtown, and was not used for drinking water until 1904. During the June 1, 1896 meeting of the Common Council, a resolution was proposed which condemned the use of river water by the water company (outside of an emergency situation) and ordered the city attorney to pursue charges against those responsible.

Journal of the Indianapolis Common Council, 1895-1897

No action was taken on this resolution, although discussions were commenced about the city purchasing the water company in order to have more control over the utility. Returning to the water company's use of river water, The president of the Indianapolis Board of Public Works, told the News that at some point they would look at the charter for the water company regarding the use of river water, stating that “I think the greatest part of the blame lies at Noblesville. What I blame the Water Company most for is for not being open and frank about the condition of things.” The Indianapolis common council’s focus was also more directed towards the alleged use of river water by the water company.


The Indianapolis Water Company again took the American Strawboard Works to Federal Court, claiming a violation of the injunction imposed a few years before following the 1893 contamination. Judge Baker, who had heard the case in 1893, held the company in contempt, despite their arguments that the break had been accidental, and noted that it was company’s responsibility to ensure none of the pollution got in the river. A fine of $250 was imposed as punishment.

Indianapolis News, June 14, 1898 (North is left)

A few years later, in June of 1898, the Indianapolis News sent a reporter to investigate rumors that the levee keeping the settling basins from the river were on the verge of failing once again. The News reporter investigating found that the levee was still intact, along with a guard shack constructed along the river to monitor the levee. (the sketch to the the left accompanied the News article) The reporter also noted a rumor that a drainpipe had been buried underground to allow the basins to be drained secretly, but no evidence of that was found.


Aside from a polluted river, the 1896 contamination. Local newspapers advocated for the State Board of Health to take action to ensure the strawboard company and similar industries were prevented from polluting state waters. Legislation was proposed by the Indiana General Assembly for increased protections for waterways, and the Indianapolis Water Company, while at first pursing newer, deeper wells, turned to using water treatment techniques to treat river water. The company also began to consider the construction of storage reservoirs in the Fall Creek valley and along Eagle Creek to help meet the city's water needs.

Sources


Indianapolis Star, December 21, 29, 30, 31, 1999, January 9, 2000, February 1, 2000


113 tons of dead fish: Indiana's worst environmental disaster, 20 years later, Sarah Bowman, https://www.indystar.com/in-depth/news/environment/2019/12/19/guide-corp-s-toxic-discharge-killed-millions-fish-white-river/4385458002/


Recovery of the West Fork of the White River, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Division (2006), https://www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/files/WFWRRecovery.pdf


Indianapolis News, June 1, 1896, June 2, 1896, June 4, 1896, June 14, 1898


Journal of the Indianapolis Common Council, 1895-1897, https://archive.org/details/journalsofcommo189597indi/page/n3/mode/2up


Strawboard lagoon operation at Noblesville, Indiana, 1951, http://e-archives.lib.purdue.edu/cdm/ref/collection/engext/id/395


THE 1896 NOBLESVILLE FISH KILL, David Heighway, https://www.hepl.lib.in.us/the-1896-noblesville-fish-kill/


Bakken, J. Darrell. (2003). "Now that time has had its say" : a history of the Indianapolis Central Canal, 1835-2002. Bloomington, IN: 1stBooks Library.

Map of Hamilton County Indiana, compiled from original surveys and personal inspection (1906), https://cdm16066.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15078coll8/id/1083


Indianapolis Water Co. v. American Strawboard Co., 57 F. 1000 (Oct. 20, 1893)


Indianapolis Water Co. v. American Strawboard Co., 53 F 970 (Feb. 6, 1893)

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