Investigation underway into fish killed in Sellersburg pond

Investigation underway into fish killed in Sellersburg pond
These golfers were the last to play the hole on the cement plant property before the gates were closed.
A Clark County Health Department truck sits on Riley Road. Lehigh Hanson owns the Speed Cement Plant, visible in the distance. (Source: Josh Hicks, News and Tribune)
A Clark County Health Department truck sits on Riley Road. Lehigh Hanson owns the Speed Cement Plant, visible in the distance. (Source: Josh Hicks, News and Tribune)
Lehigh environmental professional Mike Phillips heads down to the pond at Speed Golf Course. (Source: Josh Hicks, News and Tribune)
Lehigh environmental professional Mike Phillips heads down to the pond at Speed Golf Course. (Source: Josh Hicks, News and Tribune)

By APRILE RICKERT
News and Tribune

SELLERSBURG, IN (NEWS AND TRIBUNE) - Local and state health officials, and a Sellersburg company, are investigating what has caused fish in a golf course pond to die over the last week and a half.

Early Monday afternoon, the Clark County Health Department was at the pond at Speed Golf Course in Sellersburg, with representatives from the Indiana Department of Emergency Management and Indiana State Chemist's Office en route to perform testing.

The property is owned by Lehigh Hanson, formerly Essroc, which operates the nearby Speed Cement Plant and uses the pond as a closed loop to cool kilns inside the facility. It is behind a fence where holes seven and eight of the golf course are.

Doug Bentfield, environmental specialist with the Clark County Health Department, said the initial assessment shows at least several hundred dead fish, mostly sunfish and some carp, along and in the pond. Some other species had not been affected. Bentfield said the health department was notified of the matter by an anonymous source, and an investigation began Monday. The investigation revealed that fish started dying last week, but now the water has a pinkness to it, which Bentfield says is abnormal.

"There's something in the water and we just want to know what it is," he said. "We don't know if it's an organic phosphate or what the issue might be, but something has caused the oxygen level to drop out; that's why the fish are dying."

Whether that's a natural event or the introduction of a chemical into the system has yet to be determined, he said.

IDEM and the state chemist traveled to Sellersburg on Monday to test water samples against the herbicide and pesticide the golf course uses, and against what may be in use at Lehigh Essroc.

Bentfield said Lehigh Essroc must have discharge permits for the other two ponds on the property that feed into Silver Creek, proving that water the company expels is clean and clear. The closed pond, in which the fish are dying, is under a separate set of rules, he said.

Lehigh Essroc issued a statement Monday about the investigation.

"Earlier this week we were made aware of a number of fish floating in a pond near a small golf course on our property," the statement reads. "At this time we believe the fish died died as a result of natural oxygen swing that most likely occurred due to large amounts of vegetation and algae.

"We've cleaned up the pond as well as a majority of these fish and we will continue to investigate the matter. The pond where the incident occurred is not connected to any public water sources."

Lehigh Essroc plant manager Jeremy Black told the News and Tribune late Monday afternoon that he believed the issue was caused by a weather-related algae bloom that caused a drop in the oxygen level in the pond. He added that the IDEM representative on site had agreed that's what could be the cause of the fish kill. An emailed response from IDEM confirmed that representatives were on the scene collecting samples.

A nearby resident who asked not to be identified said he started noticing the dead fish about a week and a half ago. He said the smell and the number of dead fish visible on Sunday was the worst he had encountered throughout the week. Many of the fish had been removed over the weekend.

"It was hazy where they had died and it slowly started making its way around and [fish] started dying everywhere," he said. "Who knows what it is, but fish just don't die."

Golf Course management closed off the gate Monday to holes seven and eight, so investigators would not be disturbed. Golfers could continue to play the rest of the course.

Black said the samples could take around a week to determine what caused the fish to die and what needs to be done now.

Staff reporter Danielle Grady contributed to this story.

Aprile Rickert is the crime and courts reporter at the News and Tribune. Contact her via email at aprile.rickert@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2115. Follow her on Twitter: @Aperoll27.

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