Remembering the White River fishkill 

On Dec. 13, 1999, a white wall of foam came pouring out of the Anderson, Indiana, Wastewater Treatment Plant. A few days later, dead fish began to be discovered downriver, and by Christmas some 100,000 fish were estimated to be dead.

Eventually, it was understood that aquatic life for 57 miles along the White River had been profoundly harmed, either completely killed or partially killed, including the death of 4.6 million fish.

The source of the toxins: a discharge from Anderson-based Guide Corp., a factory that made automobile headlights.

IDEM, the Department of Justice, and the EPA investigated the toxic release event as a crime, and there was an eventual $14 million settlement, after the predictable scenario of everyday people trying to raise money to fight the big corporation. Money was dispensed, remediation practices were put in place, and the White River was, ostensibly, restored.

But it wasn't. I know because the White River is in my backyard.

I know the way the river was before the fishkill, I know the way it was for the weeks when the river and the banks were strewn with dead fish, and I know how it is now.

Before the fishkill, one of my favorite activities was to sit on the bank of the White River next to a mulberry tree.

The mulberry tree would deposit the mulberries directly into the river, like a handy dispenser. I'd watch as giant carp, one at a time, would surface and devour the mulberries.

It was slo-motion entertainment, relaxing and a little scary to stare into the throat of the carp.

The White River was replete with many other species of fish as well, and a counterpoint to the slow, zeppelin-like movement of the carp was the surprise of fish leaping out of the water and twisting in the air.

I don't fish, and wouldn't have considered eating fish out of the E.coli-filled river, but almost daily I appreciated the diversity of wildlife in my backyard.

Then came the fishkill. I didn't see the plume, but I saw its carnage. Our sons were young then and I was torn between wanting to protect them from the devastation and wanting them to face the horror of how humans treat their environment.

There was, ultimately, no hiding the truth. The dead fish were everywhere - as was their concomitant stench.

As part of the settlement, years later, those of us along the river received an amount of money. I don't remember the exact number, but it was less than my monthly mortgage, so it wasn't a significant fund.

And what was I going to do with it?

Build animatronic carp to consume mulberries?

We did some home improvement projects, but I recall feeling like I'd been bought out with hush money.

In a recent story in the Anderson paper, the Herald Bulletin (, it was reported that the restoration has exceed expectations regarding its recovery. And one river activist is quoted as saying that the White River is "in better shape today than it was 10 years ago."

I don't know what the standard is for "better shape." All I know is the White River is different.

The carp are gone, the bass and the bluegill are gone, the catfish nowhere to be found. The mussels are depleted.

Stand with me on my levee and look down.

The river is not deep, not even at its channel. I can walk across during most months, my face pointed skyward. The river is quiet. There is the only the occasional shadow of a fish as it meanders in the water.

There are turtles, but there are no frogs. There are geese, of course, and ducks, and goldfinch and, most gloriously, an osprey nesting directly across the river from us.

But the fish are pretty much gone.

The fishermen from my neighborhood still troll the river, occasionally catching fish, but the current, moribund activity makes life before the fishkill look like a theme park on steroids.

There is nothing to do, I guess, but learn the lesson all over again. Everyone is downriver of somebody.

Or, put a different way: We are all downriver of each other.

Treating the planet accordingly is just common sense, a golden rule that is most profoundly learned when a poison plume pours, like a pinpoint tsunami, into your world.

It happened in my back yard, and it's your river, your world, too.

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About The Author

Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser is Executive Director of Earth Charter Indiana, a statewide organization that was one of over two dozen nonprofit partners in Greening the Statehouse. A former managing editor of NUVO, he won HEC’s Environmentalist of the Year Award in 2013.

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