Indiana’s Worst Environmental Disaster, 20 Years Later

By Sarah Bowman | December 31, 2019

ANDERSON, Ind. — Twenty years later, Jim Hensley still remembers that call.

The longtime machinist was sitting in the shop of the Guide Corp. plant in Anderson, which was then one of the country’s largest manufacturers of headlights and taillights for cars. Hensley was tinkering with pumps and such when the phone rang.

Juhl Baker, a co-worker Hensley had known for 40 years, said he had just been fired.

“He was hot,” Hensley said.

But the firing isn’t what made Baker angry. Baker, who has since deceased, was outraged at what the company was about to do. Under pressure to meet deadlines, company officials were planning to dump thousands of gallons of wastewater laden with toxic chemicals into the White River.

Baker had refused to go along, and they fired him.

Days later, the news broke. Dead fish started lining the river banks, piling up in front of dams. Environmental officials responded. While others were puzzled about the cause, Hensley knew exactly what had happened.

“They put a lot of stuff in that river that never should have been there,” said Hensley, now 83. “And they knew it was bad.”

This December marks the 20-year anniversary of what was often referred to as “the Guide spill,” which many call the worst environmental disaster in Indiana’s history. More than 4 million fish were killed along a 50-mile stretch of the White River from Anderson through downtown Indianapolis.

Still, Kevin Hardie doesn’t like calling it a spill. This wasn’t an accident or something that broke, said the executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the White River. Investigations ultimately found that it was a deliberate act — company officials knew it would pollute the river and did it anyway.

“I keep thinking of that phrase: `Dead men tell no tales,”’ Hardie said. “But in this case, dead fish had a tale to tell, and people wanted to know what it was.”

The lessons of Indiana’s biggest fish kill — found in thousands of pages of court documents, dozens of newspaper clips, and the vivid memories of people who were there — remain relevant two decades later. It took more than a decade of concerted effort by government and community groups for aquatic life to rebound in the river. But one thing could be said: Indiana, which is not known as a bastion of environmental stewardship, responded.

Today, civic groups remain active in trying to clean up the river. Government has new systems in place. Lawsuits have forced cities to redesign infrastructure to keep sewage and other contamination out of the water. And water quality in the White River is continuing to improve. Such measures go a long way, experts say, to decreasing the likelihood of another massive fish kill.

Still, the risk remains. Guide, after all, was not a spill; it was a criminal act. So state officials put measures in place specifically designed to respond to such events and created a fish kill biologist position.

The question, say those close to the issue, is whether such measures will remain in place when the next incident occurs. And will the public continue its stewardship of the river, not condoning any crime against it?

“This was a defining moment for the river,” Hardie said. “My hope is that we marked a point in Indiana history that this is not acceptable and would not be tolerated.”

It was before dawn on Christmas Eve of 1999, and Hardie and a friend had the White River to themselves. They bobbed in their boat on a stretch in Hamilton County as they waited and watched for ducks. But as the sky’s darkness wore off, a cold front began to punch through.

Hardie could feel the weather changing, as though the air around them, not just the water, began to freeze. They started to paddle up river, heading in for the day.

That’s when he saw the fish.

The water was low, and very clear, which was common for that time of year. But the behavior of the fish was unusual.

“They weren’t floating yet. Some were swimming, the best I can describe it, like they were swimming under the influence,” Hardie said. “Other smaller fish looked like they were stunned, just static in the water.”

He remembered arriving to a blinking light on his friend’s voicemail machine. There were nearly a dozen messages from people farther north upriver saying something wasn’t right.

But Baker and Hensley knew something was wrong nearly two weeks earlier. And the wheels of what ultimately led to the toxic discharge had actually been set in motion months before that.

It started in the summer of 1999, after Guide Corp. split from GM Automotive. Part of that agreement required Guide to shut down the metal plating operations — the process of coating parts with metal — by the end of the year. Guide also was supposed to turn over its wastewater treatment plant back to GM within three months after that.

The plant was built 30 years earlier to treat the wastewater generated from plating onsite. Once the water was treated to and reached certain levels, it was then discharged to the public Anderson treatment plant.

In anticipation of shuttering the plating line, Guide amped up production to stockpile lighting parts. But to make its deadline, the company stopped plating on Sept. 29 and started cleaning the tanks on Oct. 3, according to a lawsuit the state of Indiana and U.S Environmental Protection Agency brought against Guide in 2000.

Already, Guide was in trouble. Both ramping up and shutting down production would alter Guide’s normal discharges to the Anderson plant. The company was required by law and its permit to notify Anderson officials and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management of the changes. But the company had not done so.

And their transgressions only worsened from there.

Guide began to use its wastewater treatment plant to treat the sludge and chemicals in its tanks and equipment. Some of the tanks had not been cleaned in more than eight years and had a layer of “thick yellow sludge” on the bottom as much as three inches deep. That sludge was believed to be lead chromate, a suspected human carcinogen.

The sludge was washed away with high pressure hoses and into the treatment plant, which created a highly concentrated solution of toxic chemicals _ levels that those in charge of the plant had never cleaned before, according to the lawsuit.

Guide tried to treat “heavily contaminated wastewater” rather than disposing of it at a licensed hazardous waste disposal facility. That “set into motion a predictable chain reaction of events leading to the massive fish kill in the White River, which was completely preventable,” the lawsuit said.

Around Nov. 22, Guide officials found that the typical treatment process was failing to remove the metals from the wastewater with this highly concentrated solution of toxic chemicals. Also around that time, Anthonette Miller — Guide’s Senior Environmental Engineer who oversaw the wastewater treatment plant — ordered that the clarifier be shut down.

The clarifier is an important tank: It lets the metals settle out of the wastewater as the final stage of treatment before discharging to the public Anderson plant. That process normally takes about eight to 10 days, but without the clarifier, wastewater was allowed to settle for only two to four hours — just 2% of the time. This meant the metals did not fully separate.

Different methods were tried to treat the wastewater, according to the suit, including running it through a double layer of burlap sacks. Another strategy was to up the treatment chemicals.

Guide had used the chemical HMP-2000 in its treatment process for nearly 10 years, and its officials knew it was “highly toxic to aquatic life” if not used carefully.

In fact, Miller met with distributors in 1995 to discuss the dangers of using HMP-2000 and that it shouldn’t be discharged directly to the Anderson treatment plant. And a 1997 safety sheet for the chemical said there are “no methods to completely eliminate the toxicity this product has on aquatic environments.” So it was important to minimize its adverse effects.

Yet two years after receiving that warning, on Dec. 7, 1999, Miller and John Deaton of Crown Environmental Group, a consultant to help at the wastewater treatment plant, decided to increase the amount of HMP-2000. During that month, Guide placed more than 50 calls for rush orders of chemicals, including HMP-2000.

Between Dec. 8 and Dec. 17 of that year, Guide used nearly 10,000 gallons of the chemical _ more than the total used by the company in all of 1998. In one tank on Dec. 9, for example, Miller and her officials used four times the HMP-2000 needed to treat the wastewater.

“If you picture a five-gallon drum, that is what Guide was allowed to send through to the Anderson plant,” said Beth Admire, an attorney at IDEM who was the agency’s chief of staff at the time of the kill. “They were sending tanker trucks full of it.”

Miller did not face any criminal charges, nor did any other individuals at the company. She declined to comment on her decisions and actions for this story, saying she wasn’t interested in talking to anyone about anything related to Guide. “I don’t think anybody here is even interested,” she told IndyStar.

But Baker, who died in 2003, refused to follow Miller’s orders. He objected to shutting down the clarifier, saying it was the last “safety cushion” and would be dangerous, according to the lawsuit. He also wouldn’t discharge the “excessive and unreasonable” amounts of HMP-2000 to the Anderson plant.

That’s when he was fired on Dec. 15, 1999, and that’s when he called Hensley. Baker knew it would kill fish _ and he would rather be fired than kill fish, Hensley said.

The first reports of dead fish came into the Indiana Department of Natural Resources on Dec. 16, and into IDEM on Dec. 18. The two agencies launched their joint investigation on Dec. 20.

John Bundy was one of those first individuals to notify officials. He lives just down the river from the Anderson plant in Strawtown, where he runs his business making duck decoys.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and someone was visiting his property to scout for goose hunting. That man suddenly ran into Bundy’s office to tell him about a feeding frenzy where Pipe Creek flows into the White River. But Bundy knew something wasn’t right as soon as he saw large and small mouth bass together.

“They weren’t in a feeding frenzy,” he said. “They were in their death throes. They were starving for oxygen.”

The White River was a toxic cocktail. The Anderson treatment plant couldn’t handle the chemicals from Guide, so the wastewater ultimately was released into the river. Once there, it broke down into other chemicals — one known as thiram — that is even more toxic than the original HMP-2000. The toxins also wreaked havoc on the Anderson plant, killing its microbiological treatment system and rendering the plant unable to treat other wastewater streams.

Not only were Guide’s chemicals entering the river, but so too were sewage and high levels of ammonia.

“It was a cascading failure,” said Scott Salmon, who served as DNR’s fish kill and restoration biologist for five years starting in 2012. “It was a perfect formula for killing fish.”

And the perfect storm for when it happened: Many folks at the state were out for the holiday, and the low, cold water meant the contamination was slower to dilute and degrade. The fish kill started slow and small, before it seemingly was out of control.

Bundy said they ended up collecting about nine tons of fish from the spot near his property. That was just a fraction of the more than 100 tons of dead fish that carpeted the White River.

“The state had to pay to dump 113 tons of fish in a landfill,” said Bill James, DNR’s Chief of Fisheries at the time of the spill. The fish were taken to the Twin Bridges Landfill in Danville, about 20 miles west of Indianapolis. “I didn’t look that up. Those numbers are still stuck in my head these 20 years later.”

The state ultimately spent about $2 million in its response, cleaning up the dead fish and assessing damages, according to Admire, the IDEM attorney. Then-Gov. Frank O’Bannon also called in the help of a few federal agencies — the FBI, Department of Justice and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — along with the Environmental Protection Agency to get to the bottom of what had happened.

O’Bannon made clear that those responsible for damaging natural resources would be held accountable — a consequence that had not always been so clear in Indiana.

“Early on, people were saying the state wouldn’t do anything, that people kill fish all the time and nothing happens,” James said. “But this was the granddaddy of all fish kills in Indiana.”

Other fish kills could be assessed quickly and the report wrapped up within a week, James said. “This one was clearly a mystery and huge and growing and with no end in sight.”

Questions were flooding in from the public: “They wanted to know who was responsible. People were asking if they would ever live to see the river restored, what it would be like for their grandchildren,” he added. But the state had little information and few answers to give them.

As the investigation unfolded and the contamination was traced back to Guide, James said the company was less than cooperative. According to news reports, Guide continued to deny its role for several months, pointing to other industries in the area.

But the company then changed its tune, said Kyle Niederpruem, a former IndyStar reporter who covered the spill in its aftermath.

“At a certain point, attorneys for Guide realized there was no way to come up with a defense for it,” she said. “It happened, it occurred, it was catastrophic, it was chemical _ better to get it resolved than to obfuscate.”

So at what many call warp speed for a case like this — less than two years from the time the state and EPA filed Clean Water Act complaints against Guide and its consultant Crown — a settlement was reached. Guide ultimately paid around $14 million.

Some of that money came in the form of criminal penalties because of Guide’s deliberate degradation of the river. Some went to pay back damages incurred in the clean-up. The remainder, about $6 million, went to setting up a restoration fund to bring the river back.

Not only did Guide Corp. put chemicals into the White River that killed more than four million fish along a 50 mile stretch, but investigations found that the company did so deliberately, knowing the damage it could cause. As a result, Guide faced criminal charges and ultimately plead guilty to seven negligent violations of the Clean Water Act.

James won’t forget his first few times on the river after the kill.

“You’re thinking, well is it eerie, is it dead, is it calm?” he thinks back. “And then the seagulls came. In that winter, I’ve never seen the number of seagulls that came to the White River in Indy. They were eating the fish, the dead fish.”

As the chief of fisheries, one of James’ main priorities was to bring live fish back into the river. He and Bundy started working together in the months after the kill, realizing they couldn’t wait for a settlement to restock — “mother nature doesn’t like a vacuum,” they both said separately.

Bundy, his wife and a few others created the group White River Rescue. Through donations and selling Bundy’s decoy ducks — which became a sort of mascot for their efforts — they raised nearly $150,000 in a matter of months. Then they worked with James to start buying fish.

Few had tried to restock a stretch of river this long from scratch before, but Bundy said they never doubted they could do it. They ultimately restocked about 1 million fish, of about 12 different types, along 50 miles of the river over several summers after the spill.

Bundy remembers when the first order of nearly 40,000 fish arrived. He could hear the truck from miles away, revving up around the corners on the roads near his shop. When the silver semi pulled into his driveway, both the tires and engine were smoking: “Detroit diesel has a particular smell to it, when it’s been run hard,” Bundy said.

They’d catch the fish in the semi with nets, load them onto smaller trucks and then deploy out to the designated drop-off points in the river. Bundy, James and their volunteers did that more than a few dozen times.

Restocking was just one aspect of the restoration efforts, according to Carl Wodrich with Indiana’s DNR and the project manager for the restoration fund. There were several categories of projects: clean-up of dumping sites along the river, increasing signage for safety, creating and improving public access points, and establishing conservation corridors and restoring habitat.

The settlement was not the biggest by far, according to Admire with IDEM, also one of the state’s Natural Resources Co-Trustees who oversaw how the fund was used. One settlement in northwest Indiana, for example, is more than 12-times the Guide amount. But Guide was unique in several key ways.

In the aftermath of the Guide spill and resulting fish kill, the EPA and state of Indiana filed complaints against the company for what many call Indiana’s worst environmental disaster. This complaint details how it all unfolded.

The level of community involvement was unprecedented, Wodrich said. A Citizens Advisory Council was established to help make recommendations to the trustees on how to use the funds, and that group — on which Bundy, Hardie and others served — met once a month for several years. There were also far more projects — ranging in cost from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand dollars — than had been seen on other restorations, Admire added.

All told, the funds were used on about 90 projects over the course of roughly 10 years.

Admire, serving as a natural resources trustee for the state since 1996, has worked on a number of restoration actions and said that the White River restoration is one of the most fun and rewarding projects she’s worked on.

And the river has largely recovered, according to officials.

Many of the projects funded by the settlement, including conservation easements and public access points, are still in place. Educational programs and clean-ups along the river are ongoing. The White River once again is a fishing destination with plenty of smallmouth bass and other key species.

It did come back, James said, but it took time.

“It wasn’t over in a year or two years or five years,” he said. “It took agency commitment and work from the public for more than a decade.”

Now that it’s built back up, many worry what it would take for it all to come crashing down again. And what would happen if it did.

“When we talk about this event that occurred two decades ago,” Hardie said, “we have this whole generation using the White River that have no clue this happened or that it could happen again.”

The Guide discharge was not a failure in the regulatory system, he added, but a criminal act: “How do you prevent acts of crime?”

Salmon, DNR’s former fish kill and restoration biologist, said that is what makes it all the more likely that something like this could happen again. “We’re just one or two mistakes away,” he said, “one or two people trying to cut corners.”

That said, Salmon believes that the agencies are better prepared to handle such a tragedy if it were to strike again. His job, meant to help the contamination unit get to the bottom of a fish kill and manage restoration projects after, would not have existed if not for the Guide spill and fish kill.

While Salmon was not with DNR at the time of the kill, his father was. At 14, Salmon remembers his dad coming home from work at the end of the day, while the agency was in the middle of its response, and getting a sense for just how massive it was.

There also is a new incident command system in place that helps with responding to these types of events, said Salmon, who is now the operations director at White Pine Wilderness Academy in Rocky Ripple. In the immediate aftermath of the Guide spill, the public was critical of the agencies for failing to provide adequate information. The new system is meant to overcome such issues.

Yet Salmon says he has concerns that people could get pulled away from their positions or be made to wear many hats, leaving not as many hands to respond to a similar event.

“We are stronger now than it was in 1999, at least on paper,” Salmon said. “But it’s about having the right people in the right places.”

Still, Salmon and others hope that the official response to the Guide spill will have a chilling effect on industries seeking to cut corners. It set a tone that the “cost of business” excuse would not be tolerated, and this would not just be wiped off the books.

“The White River is the sacrificial lamb,” James said. “It had to be sacrificed to make those things known that people will be held accountable and they can’t hide this and the public does care and cares a lot and won’t rest until justice is done.”

Bundy believes that is the true legacy of the White River. As the 20-year anniversary approached, his first thought was that he’s 20 years older, and with a bit more gray hair. His second: The White River is still there.

“That’s the legacy of the spill. People learned that we have the power to kill everything in the river for 50 miles and destroy the environment. And we did,” he said. “But the real legacy of this _ a turning point of both the century and in history _ is that people tend to protect and respect what they love. And the river is as good, if not better, than it was before.”


IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

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