CBS Chicago

Cyanide And Ammonia Spill In Little Calumet River Killed 3,000 Fish

A total of 3,000 fish died in Portage, Indiana after a chemical spill at an ArcelorMittal plant. (Credit: CBS 2)

PORTAGE, Ind. (CBS) — Three thousand.

It turns out that is how many fish died last week after cyanide and ammonia were released into the Little Calumet River in Northwest Indiana. And it took days before the public was warned about the water danger.

CBS 2’s Tim McNicholas was pushing for answers in Portage Monday afternoon.

“The smell is terrible. It’s very pungent,” said Ryan Crnarich.

Between Wednesday and Thursday, the staff at the Samuel Maletta Public Marina scooped up dozens of dead fish.

“We were in pretty close proximity working with the fish, and at that point we weren’t so sure about what the problem was,” Crnarich said.

Crnarich said he wore gloves and used a net, but he was close enough that he had contact with the water. He now knows those fish died from a cyanide and ammonia spill.

“It frustrates me that the company wouldn’t, you know, make a statement to help us and everybody else that wants to enjoy the water,” he said.

The state said the main way a person could be harmed by the spill would be if somebody were to accidentally ingest the chemicals. But just to be safe, the marina staff isn’t even touching the water for now.

ArcelorMittal has now apologized and accepted responsibility for the spill. They say a failure of their last furnace water recirculation system caused the release, but the company has not said when that happened.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management said it found a distressed fish in the river Monday, and then took complaints of a dead fish on Tuesday.

By Wednesday, the state said it discovered a significant fish die-off in the area, but they did not know the cause.

The state said on Thursday, ArcelorMittal told the state it had “violated the daily maximum limit for cyanide.”

The company and the state released statements on the concerns Thursday evening.

The National Parks Service has now temporarily banned swimming at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, where contaminated water could have fed into Lake Michigan. The agency also said nobody should eat fish they catch in the area.

But that wasn’t announced until Thursday evening.

“It’s essential to notify people,” said Phil Grenchik.

Grenchik had already spent more than six hours surfing at the beach Wednesday and Thursday before the ban. He has not noticed any health effects, but he does plan on bringing it up with his doctor.

“It always baffled me that when you’re talking about cyanide, why any amount should be allowed in our waters,” he said.

The fish at the marina wound up in a dumpster, and contractors hired by ArcelorMittal came and collected them.

The state said ArcelorMittal has been doing water sampling that has shown signs of improvement, and they said the spill will not impact the safety of anyone’s drinking water.