No one has taken responsibility for 2002 Salt Fork ammonia spill

No one has taken responsibility for 2002 Salt Fork ammonia spill

The Salt Fork, with its riffles and ripples, its smallmouth bass, mussels and crayfish, was quiet.

Not even a water strider skipped across the surface.

That's what Dennis Wandell remembers most about the 2002 ammonia spill: the stillness of the river.

"I've never seen it totally flat. There was no movement. It looked like a pool," said Wandell, who lives on the banks of the Salt Fork between Homer and Sidney.

"It was a blue-ribbon fishery," said Roger Purcell of St. Joseph, who spent decades catching and releasing bass on the Salt Fork.

On July 11, 2002, ammonia was released into the Saline Branch ditch in east Urbana, where it 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.

Since then, Purcell has turned to the Middle Fork and Illinois Rivers to fish.

He figures he'll return to fishing the Salt Fork in about 10 years. The fish just aren't big enough yet, he said.

"I just don't want to stress the (fish) population. I want to give them time to come back," Purcell said. "I've just been dismayed that it hasn't been restored or restocked yet."

Four years after the ammonia discharge, the Illinois attorney general's office still is working on a settlement agreement with the groups behind the discharge.

The ammonia originated from the University of Illinois, which hired a company called CEDA to clean the boilers at the UI's Abbott Power Plant. At some point after the cleaning, the ammonia was released to the Urbana & Champaign Sanitary District, which discharged the wastewater into the Saline Branch.

"It's been a long, drawn-out process. It has gone on longer than we anticipated," said lawyer Rick Stock of Gardner Carton & Douglas in Chicago. Stock represents the UI and the sanitary district.

Stock said the parties involved in the settlement have made progress. But they haven't arrived at the finish line.

"One of the concerns is about the company that actually did the work. The issue was to what extent CEDA would participate in this overall enforcement action. ... We're interested in the fact that CEDA has some responsibility here," Stock said.

The lawyer for CEDA did not return calls seeking comment.

Legal lingo

A lot of people are involved in the settlement, in addition to those handling it for the attorney general's office. There are lawyers for the UI and the sanitary district and lawyers for CEDA; staff with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. And out of Washington, D.C.: the Department of Justice and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Prairie Rivers Network, a stream advocacy group based in Champaign-Urbana, also is monitoring the settlement's progress.

"We're trying to agree on a framework for identifying the nature and extent of the natural resource damages, and then we also have to work out an appropriate resolution for the enforcement side of the case," Illinois Assistant Attorney General Jim Morgan said.

This entails not only determining the value of the fish lost, but the value of other aquatic life and the loss of habitat. Plus, the attorney general's office needs all parties involved in the settlement to agree on a restoration plan.

"We are determining what measures need to be put in place so the problem won't be repeated," Morgan said.

The parties need to come to a consensus on how to place a value on the adverse effects of the spill, and how to determine when those effects have been corrected, he said.

Stock said one reason the settlement process is taking so long is that there has been a "tremendous amount of analysis" conducted by consultants for his clients and by the state.

In the past, when a similar spill occurred, the state would have levied a fish kill penalty. The IDNR would have investigated, determined what species and how many fish were killed and calculate a penalty by multiplying the value of the species times the number of fish killed.

"The problem is that only looks at part of the damage. It doesn't take into consideration the value of the stream, other aquatic life," Morgan said.

Instead of looking at part of the environmental picture, now the state is looking at the entire picture, he said.

"The primary goal of these natural resources damage claims is restoration, and that typically takes the form of some sort of improvement or work within the stream that will enhance the habitat for aquatic life and fish," Morgan said.

A number of proposals have been on the table. But the agencies have not come to an agreement yet. Morgan is hoping for one in the next few months.

Once the parties come to an agreement, but before the state goes before a judge and requests whether or not the settlement be approved, the agreement will be available for public review and comment, Morgan said. The state could also withdraw the agreement based on the comments it receives.

If approved, specific projects will be identified and those proposals will also go out for public review and comment.

Not too late?

Four years later, it's not too late, said Jean Flemma, executive director of Prairie Rivers.

Dealing with an ammonia spill is not dealing with an oil spill, she said. You don't have to clean the oil out of the stream. Eventually the ammonia is diluted as it mixes with water and flows downstream.

Flemma said it will take many years for the fish populations to bounce back, and the only way fish can recover is if they have habitat: safe areas for the fish to grow and plenty of food.

"The real question is how do we ensure that the river and the habitat the river provides are protected," she said. Restoring habitats "creates an insurance policy for any potential future accident, regardless of where it comes from. And there's always potential for accidents when you have urban areas nearby," she said.

Plus, fish habitats on the Salt Fork often are disturbed by drainage district activities such as tree cutting, dredging and channelization, which involves straightening a stream, Flemma said.

To see how the Salt Fork may or may not have recovered from the ammonia incident, the state will review information gathered from a comprehensive survey of the streams this summer.

Every five years the IDNR, along with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, conducts a review of a river basin in the state. This August they will survey the Vermilion River basin, including its tributaries such as the Salt Fork.

"The last major survey of the system was in 2001, before the fish kill, and this one will be done in August. So this time around we should be able to get a good handle on how the fish have come back," said Gary Lutterbie, regional streams biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Staff not only will assess the fish populations, but also how the mussels and other aquatic life are doing. Plus, they'll review water quality and habitat.

Lutterbie expects the report to be released in January 2007.

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