WRTV Investigates


Advocates concerned about lack of answers in White River oil discharge

Unclear how big or what caused recent incident
Posted at 10:44 AM, Sep 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-12 20:33:32-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Advocates of the White River are raising concerns about the lack of information surrounding a September 3 oil discharge into the river.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management says it is still working with Citizens Energy to identify the source of the discharge, which happened through the city's combined sewer outfalls near Bluff Road and West Southeastern Avenue.

It’s also unclear how big the spill was.

“The specific quantity released is unknown at this time,” said Barry Sneed, IDEM spokesperson in an email to RTV6.

IDEM did not take any steps to notify the public about the oil discharge until after RTV6 asked questions on September 5.

“The area of impact was secured upon discovery, eliminating exposure concerns,” said Sneed in an email to RTV6. “While this release presented minimal exposure threat, IDEM did provide a statement to media inquiries to provide an awareness of incident and ongoing activities.”

The Hoosier Environmental Council, White River Alliance, and Friends of White River are all demanding answers and accountability.

“This spill has elicited a lot concern among our members, and it presents a notable risk to our river, its ecology and its users,” said Jill Hoffman, executive director of the White River Alliance. “We certainly don’t want to minimize the seriousness of this incident, as swift clean-up responses, public notice, and enforcement need to be elevated as priorities; however, this incident also provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the equivalent and ongoing oil spills that cumulatively enter the river through our storm drain systems every day.”

The federal EPA estimates that American households improperly dump about 193 million gallons of used oil every year, or roughly the equivalent of 17 Exxon Valdez oil spills, by way of illegal dumping, careless oil change practices, and oil leaks from cars that migrate into stormwater runoff, said Hoffman.

Friends of White River says the polluters need to be identified and held accountable for their actions.

“Sources of what some call 'spills,' which are actually illegal discharges and may or may not be accidental, continue to be a concern to Friends of White River, other groups and increasingly, all citizens who live along White River or care about its future,” said Kevin Hardie, executive director at Friends of White River. “This is especially true as we approach the upcoming 20th anniversary of an incident that began in Anderson and resulted in a chemical plume between there and Indianapolis that killed 5 million fish when it happened at the end of 1999.”

IDEM says no impacts to aquatic life have been observed.

Citizens Energy has been given authority by U.S. EPA under the federal Clean Water Act to operate its own pre-treatment program and regulate the industrial sources of wastewater. The group inspects 134 combined sewer overflow locations along the White River, Fall Creek, Pogues Run and Pleasant Run monthly.

Citizens Energy inspected the location where the spill happened near Bluff road on August 22 and did not observe any problems.

In this incident, IDEM notified the Marion County Health Department, the federal EPA, and state DNR of this situation

“There are several industrial facilities that are serviced by this portion of the combined sewer and investigations continue into identifying the source,” said Sneed. Booms were placed in immediate proximity of the outfall and will be adjusted according to capture any residual oil from the cleanup activities, said Sneed.

Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council released the following statement to RTV6:

"Indianapolis has developed its first-ever White River Strategic Plan. The oil spill in the White River -- however confined/limited it may have been -- is 'a teachable moment' for Citizens Energy to develop a fresh Public Service Announcement about protecting the river. It could speak to how citizens can safeguard the river from large risks (e.g., industrial discharges), medium (e.g., open dumping of old appliances), and household-level (e.g., pet waste, fertilizer & pesticide runoff). This is an opportunity to engage the public in safeguarding the ecological crown jewel of our community and, in time, open up all of the possibilities of the White River for wildlife, for light footprint recreation, for sight seeing, and more."