20 Years After the White River Fish Kill

written by: Sheryl Myers, Founding Board Member and Guest Contributor

Just before Christmas of 1999, John Bundy received an alarming call from a friend who told him that smallmouth bass were spawning in the White River – hundreds of them.  Bundy immediately joined his friend to witness bass spawning in December.  But they weren’t spawning; they were gasping for oxygen as they suffocated in water that was contaminated with an industrial solvent called DMDK.  At the time, however, no one could explain what had killed every single fish in the White River from Anderson to 16th Street in Indianapolis.

After the Environmental Protection Agency and Indiana Department of Environmental Management conducted their investigations, the truth emerged:  Guide Lamp had dumped 1.6 million gallons of a solvent called DMDK into the city sewer system in the process of shutting down their metal plating operation.  The chemical completely disabled Anderson’s Sewage Treatment Plant, which proceeded to dump untold gallons of raw sewage into the river. In a “perfect storm” of circumstances, 5 million fish died in a sixty-mile long toxic plume.

Fast forward twenty years to January, 2020.  Guide Lamp settled out of court in 2001 paying $14.2 million in fines, $6 million of which was placed in a trust to fund restoration and restocking projects along the affected stretch of river.  Over $330,000 came back to Madison County for projects including the clean-up of the old Moss Island dump; removal of a defunct railroad trestle in the river west of Jackson Street; creation of permanent conservation easements that protect habitat along the river; bank stabilization at Grandview Golf Course, tree plantings at Riverbend Park, construction of the Perkinsville canoe launch, and the restocking of a million game fish.  The White River Watchers and the Lapel Boy Scouts also received funding for river clean-ups.

At the time there was considerable debate about whether the White River fishery could recover on its own, or whether it should be restocked.  The problem was that the Indiana Department of Natural Resources didn’t have the capacity for such a huge project.  So Bundy and others formed a 501(c)3 called White River Rescue.  They raised over $200,000 for restocking efforts, then organized bucket brigades of volunteers that hand-carried fish from delivery trucks to the river banks.  It was a phenomenal effort.  How did it turn out?

Today, the White River is arguably the best smallmouth fishery in the state.  Fishing guides from as far away as Canada bring groups to our river.  According to Greg Spencer, Superintendent of Grandview Golf Course, the conservation easement along the river is thriving and is being monitored by the Red-tail Land Conservancy.  Perhaps the brightest silver lining of the 1999 fish kill is the enduring friendship of citizens who came together to bring their river back to health.  The lesson learned is that the corporate bottom line should never jeopardize the water we depend on.

Sheryl Myers taught biology and environmental science for 34 years and has worked as a naturalist for area parks. She is a founding director of Heart of the River Coalition and founding board member of the Red-tail Land Conservancy.