Sunday, October 21, 2007

Something's Fishy in Denver

"Cold may be behind large die-off of fish in Sloan's Lake" headlined the Scripps-owned Rocky Mountain News on October 18th, 2007. A large fish die-off at Sloan's Lake in Denver "may be linked to cold weather killing algae, which leads to oxygen being absorbed from the water," authorities said Wednesday. The story then goes on to say that while "scores of dead fish were bobbing in the west Denver lake, catfish, crappie, coy, bluegill and perch were gasping on the lake's southwestern shore where an inlet from Edgewater releases fresh, oxygenated water."

Now, let's get this straight. Fish die where there's fresh oxygenated water and they're dead because there's been a mild chill in the Denver air in recent days? Ms. Dumm, a PR person from Denver's Environmental Health, was quick to suggest that this is a "natural phenomenon." However, reporters don't seem to be asking fifth-grade-level science questions like why, then, this doesn't happen every year at Sloan's Lake, killing off mass numbers of fish when chilly air kills off algae in the lake? People who frequent the lake say they've never seen anything like it before.

City health officials assert that this latest in a string of mass wildlife deaths in Denver is just nature at work. In the absence of any test results, city officials have asserted that "they don't believe the water was contaminated by a toxin."

One man fishing in the lake, David Rice, seemed to have a different view:

"To kill catfish, it's got to be pretty harsh, they survive a lot of things."
Shouldn't we all be assured that the Colorado Division of Wildlife was on the scene? They gathered some of the dead fish for testing at a lab in Brush, Colorado. Never mind that the agency's PR woman, Jennifer Churchill, has kept mum for over eight months about tests this same agency reportedly claimed they were conducting on the massive duck die-off that occurred at Metro Wastewater's sewage ponds last winter. According to one e-mail obtained by the Toxic Sleuth between Ms. Churchill and an inquiring citizen, no testing for contaminants was ever actually performed by the agency, despite newspaper reports that tests were being conducted and would be made public. It's all just been dubbed an unsolved mystery and dropped. Apparently, agency officials hoped it would all be forgotten about by citizens of Denver who care about ducks, our public parks, and public health.

Also curious is that none of the news agencies in Denver have reported anything about the fact that the sole source of the water to Sloan's Lake - the Rocky Mountain Ditch - is operated by a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Coors Company. The ditch originates on the Coors complex between two of its industrial buildings in Golden. In years not so long ago, even an inexperienced reporter would have inquired of Coors or state officials if they might have had a toxic release that meandered down their ditch to enter the lake at precisely the point were all the fish were dying. The question certainly should be asked, since Coors' illegal toxic release incidents have become commonplace over the last couple of decades, killing hundreds, even thousands of fish downstream from their industrial operations.

In one massive fish kill in 2000, the deaths were documented to have been caused by illegal discharges from Coors where the contaminated wastes displaced oxygen in the water, thereby killing the fish. In that incident, the Colorado Division of Wildlife filed suit in Jefferson County District Court against the Coors Brewing Co. to recover the value of more than 50,000 fish killed as a result of the discharge of highly polluted, oxygen-depleting contaminants into the water, killing fish from the plant's discharge outlet to more than seven miles downstream on Clear Creek. And Colorado's fish aren't the only ones who should be concerned about Coors discharges; those below their plant in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia also need to be on the lookout for what's upstream.

And if Coors did have such an illegal release related to the Sloan's Lake fish kill, would we ever learn of it? Not likely, thanks to a law Coors themselves engineered and maneuvered into State of Colorado law after three tries in the early 1990's. Termed the "polluter amnesty bill" by environmentally-concerned opponents, under the measure polluters can now keep the lid on any environmental crime as long as they self-report it to the state health department. If they do so, the state health department then must keep mum about it, and deny any any inquiring citizens access to any report, testing results or communications about it, even under open records laws.

So these days, whenever fish turn up dead, should we just assume it's just another "natural phenomenon," like all the dead ducks all over Denver in recent years?

Fisherman David Rice as he waded near the inlet on the west side of the lake along Sheridan Boulevard and threw dead fish upon the banks told the Rocky Mountain News,
"I'm a nature person, and I don't like seeing fish dying. This is sad. I've been here 22 years, and I've never seen anything like this. When fish come up to you asking for help, you know there's trouble."

Who will speak for the fish? And the ducks? And the rest of us? Something's fishy in Denver, and it's up to us as a community to get to the bottom of it, where all the muck is.

Photo credit: KUSA Channel 9 News


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the report and welcome to the blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

What a cool lady!

Man, I wish I could be so cool... poor fishes. :(