The Indianapolis Star from Indianapolis, Indiana on September 29, 2019 · A10
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The Indianapolis Star from Indianapolis, Indiana · A10

Indianapolis, Indiana
Issue Date:
Sunday, September 29, 2019
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10A ❚ SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 29, 2019 ❚ INDYSTAR.COM E1 quality has improved enough to make boating safe if certain minor precau- tions are taken. But eating the fish will remain an iffy proposition at best. On the 20th anniversary of a toxic discharge that killed every fish from Anderson to Broad Ripple, IndyStar studied decades of water quality and fish tissue data collected by the Indi- ana Department of Environmental Management. We talked to environ- mental experts, city planners and people promoting a cleaner river. At the site of a proposed beach, we part- nered with scientists from IUPUI to test the water throughout July, which is prime time for swimming and boat- ing in Central Indiana. The results are encouraging, yet sobering. Progress has been made. Fish populations are on the rise. Wad- ing is relatively safe. But the White River still has a long way to go. And families eager to enjoy its nat- ural beauty should heed a few warn- ings before diving in. A polluted White River Water pollution has plagued the White River for more than a century. A 1916 Indianapolis Times article described the river like this: “The con- dition of the stream has been so filthy in summer time that people along the river could hardly remain in their homes, the stock would not drink the water, and fish died in great num- bers.” At the time, the city’s population was booming – and the sewage prob- lems with it. The problem had grown so bad that farmers in Morgan and Johnson counties sued the city. Back then, industry also was required by law to discharge waste water directly into the river, contributing carcino- gens and heavy metals to the mix. The Clean Water Act and related legislation went a long way to keep in- dustry from polluting the river. But more than 100 years later, Indianapo- lis is still sending untreated sewage straight into the White River. All that is about to change. It took several decades, a civil rights complaint and a consent decree from the Environmental Protection Agency, but the Dig Indy project by Citizens Energy Group is now expect- ed to divert 97% of the sewage over- flows to a wastewater treatment plant by 2025. In February, groups behind the city’s White River Vision Plan re- leased a series of preliminary sketch- es for what they call “anchor areas” along the river. A beach below the Em- richsville dam, at the site of the for- mer Belmont Beach, was one of them. Empty live bait containers and the charred remnants of a recent camp- fire littered the river bank there on a Tuesday in July. But in this spot a city sketch envisions canoeists and kay- akers paddling by, residents bird- watching from a massive observation deck, people in bathing suits and a barefoot woman splashing along the edges of the water. “It’s a little bit of a far off prospect,” Andrea Watts, chief communications officer for Indianapolis’ Department of Metropolitan Development, wrote in a February email. “We hope that water testing and positive results will help clear the stigma and the public will feel comfortable swimming in the river.” In later communications, after In- dyStar confronted city officials with its analysis, the beach was described as “figurative,” a place where resi- dents could stand on shore, not in the water, and learn about the value of the river. “So if we are thinking of a sandy beach, is it going to be on the river- front, like actually touching the wa- ter? No,” said Brad Beaubien, a plan- ning administrator for the depart- ment. “And that is because the water is not safe to swim in, most if not all times of the year.” Still, the question remains: How much interaction with the river is practical? With so much enthusiasm around the river’s comeback, here’s what IndyStar’s analysis found. Putting it to the test It takes less than a minute to col- lect a water sample with an instru- ment Katerina Mazari and her team have named “the magic stick.” It’s crude but effective, a glass bea- ker taped to the end of a wooden staff, just long enough to grab water from where it might start to go over a wad- er’s knees. Mazari, a post-doctoral associate with the IU Environmental Resilience Institute specializing in environmen- tal chemistry, is working just below the Emrichsville dam, at the site of a proposed beach. In a collaboration with IndyStar, she and her team took samples from that site for most of the month of July. The main culprit for the White Riv- er contamination is called “fecal coli- form.” It’s a polite phrase that de- scribes a deeply unpleasant reality: Raw, untreated human and livestock excrement washes into the river, cre- ating a bacterial soup that could send a swimmer to the emergency room. The bacteria can cause anything from vomiting and diarrhea to skin rashes and infections. Fecal contamination on beaches is not an uncommon occurrence, said John Rumpler, clean water program director for Environment America, an environmental advocacy group. In July, Rumpler’s group found that, nationwide, more than half of all the sites tested had results showing fecal contamination above safe levels. In Indiana, 22 out of 23 beaches tested along Lake Michigan experienced at least one day of potentially unsafe swimming conditions due to their lev- els of E. coli, the marker scientists test for to determine fecal contamination. But the results of Mazari’s White River testing showed a far more con- sistent problem. None of the 18 samples taken and analyzed by Mazari and her col- leagues in July tested below E. coli limits for swimming. In fact, the water often tested several times over the limit, the most egregious sample test- ing more than 78 times the E. coli lim- it. The findings are particularly trou- bling because of the location of the test site. Gabe Filippelli was surprised and disheartened by the results. The director of the Center of Urban Health at IUPUI who oversees the lab where Mazari works said he had expected a better result on that stretch of the riv- er. But several of the samples from the White River were just as high or high- er than samples taken in Pleasant Run, even though the White River test site is upstream of tributaries that dump much of Indy’s sewage pollu- tion into the river. It turns out, the wa- ter is often too dirty for swimming when it arrives in Indianapolis, mean- ing the Dig Indy project may not clean the water as much as some people hope. Indiana Department of Environ- mental Management officials said they couldn’t predict if Dig Indy and other sewer rehab projects would IUPUI researchers, from left, Emeline Frix, Saba Ahmed, Dianna Perez and Katerina Mazari test water along the White River at a proposed Downtown beach area on July 11. It takes less than a minute to collect a water sample with an instrument Mazari and her team have named “the magic stick.” River still holds some dangers Continued from Page 1A The main culprit for the White River contamination is called “fecal coliform.” PHOTOS BY MATT KRYGER/INDYSTAR STEPHEN J. BEARD AND EMILY HOPKINS / INDYSTAR SOURCE: IUPUI Center for Urban Health Unsuitable for swimming Throughout July 2019, scientists tested samples of the White River for fecal coliforms — bacteria that originates in animal or human intestines —Êwhich can include E. coli. They found levels that far exceeded the threshold considered safe for swimming. This red line in the chart above represents 235 cfu/100mL, the maximum level allowed before a beach closure. Number of colony forming units per 100 milliliters 0 5,000 10,000 15,000 20,000 JULY 2019 1 15 31 July 23: 18,385 cfu/100mL See RIVER, Page 11A

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