Five years later, settlement over fish kill possible

Five years later, settlement over fish kill possible

Five years after an ammonia discharge into the Salt Fork killed about 100,000 fish, a half-million dollar settlement is near.

The governmental agencies and entities involved in the settlement are reviewing a consent decree and are expected to sign the document, which will eventually be made public.

As part of the agreement, the University of Illinois, along with CEDA, a cleaning contractor hired by the university, and the Urbana & Champaign Sanitary District, will pay a total of $566,000 to federal and state agencies, according to the university.

Just who pays what, who gets how much and where the money will go has not been disclosed yet.

"It hasn't been finalized. We're really not at liberty to divulge details until it goes through the approval stages," said Mike Little, executive director of the sanitary district.

On July 11, 2002, the University of Illinois hired CEDA to clean boilers at the UI's Abbott Power Plant. A substance containing a high concentration of ammonia was released to the sanitary district, which discharged the wastewater into the Saline Branch ditch in east Urbana. The substance traveled south into the Salt Fork, past St. Joseph and Sidney, then east to Oakwood where the Salt Fork merges with the Middle Fork River.

More than 100,000 fish died from Urbana to Oakwood, according to reports from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

"We've been pushing for years for a settlement on this case. So we're happy to hear one is pending," said Glynnis Collins, interim executive director of Prairie Rivers Network, which works to protect rivers and streams in Illinois.

Once all the agencies have signed the consent decree, it will be published in the Federal Register and the public will be able to review and comment on it. The decree will go before a federal judge for approval and it's not until later in the process that the state and federal agencies will receive the official notice on how much money they will receive, said UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

Collins said she and members of Prairie Rivers will review the consent decree when it is posted and they will provide comments on the document. Because the immediate impact of the ammonia spill was on the river's fish population, Collins said it would seem logical for any rehabilitation plan to promote fish habitat in the stream.

"This was an isolated incident," Little said. Shortly after the spill, the university and the sanitary district agreed to take several steps to prevent such an incident from happening again, he said. The university agreed to follow certain procedures before allowing any discharge other than normal wastewater, and the sanitary district agreed to require outside entities to follow several formal steps before being allowed to discharge substances other than normal wastewater, Little said.

As for the five years that have passed since the spill, Kaler said it has taken time for the agencies "to make their assessments of the situation and determine a plan that satisfied all parties and meaningfully addressed the issues caused by the ammonia release," she said.

In addition to the three parties involved in the settlement (the UI, sanitary district and contractor), the agencies involved include the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S Department of Justice, the Illinois attorney general's office, the Illinois and U.S. Environmental Protection Agencies and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

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