INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - From refrigerators and couches to tires and trash, hundreds of different items have been pulled from the White River’s banks during organized cleanups over the last 25 years. But, what about the debris you can’t see? I-Team 8 found some surprising things lurking just beneath the surface.
With the help of Friends of the White River Executive Director Kevin Hardie, I-Team 8 hit the open water in several spots north of the downtown area, launching from both Broad Ripple Park and Lake Indy, just south of 30th Street.
In both spots, debris floated by our boats within minutes. Our cameras captured everything from wheelbarrows and old water heaters to truck tires, shopping carts, coolers, road construction cones and a leftover beer keg. We even saw an ironically discarded 50 gallon recycling bin, covered in mud.
It was all in the river, in plain view.
- ONLINE EXTRA | Photo gallery of the dumped items
That's a big problem for the hundreds of species of plants and wildlife that call the river home. But, it’s also a concern for humans.
"If you turn on the faucet, or send something down the drain, you are a part of what's happening with the river,” Hardie said. “60 percent of the city’s drinking water comes out of the river, through the canal system.”
For Hardie, seeing the water clogged with litter is a constant source of frustration.
“The river was an area that we really turned our back on in a lot of ways. And, when your back is turned, things can happen. To me, it's sad. The river is part of the quality of life here in Indianapolis. It's the reason the city is here. It's a resource we should celebrate. It's our defining geological feature. And, it's a natural resource that's important both environmentally and economically,” he said.
Instead, it’s a resource that’s come under attack. And, I-Team 8’s hidden cameras captured it happening.
RIVER DUMPING CAUGHT ON TAPE
I-Team 8’s cameras captured piles of junk being left to rot along the banks of the White River on three separate days, right out in the open in broad daylight. The popular dump sites we staked out were near important city attractions like the downtown area, IUPUI and Broad Ripple.
In nearly every case, those illegally dumping were only there for a few minutes. They pulled up in vans or pickup trucks, dumped their load and drove off.
- HOW TO HELP | Details on volunteer efforts at the bottom of this story
In one case, one man was seen on video looking around the area through binoculars as another person hurriedly piled junk up on the riverbank across from our camera’s hidden position. But, by the time we crossed the river to confront them they were gone, leaving piles of treated lumber and several old couch cushions behind.
"It’s not surprising, unfortunately,” Hardie said of I-Team 8’s findings. “We used to turn our back on our waterways, and people thought they were just a way to get rid of things. Any place that you had a road access or an isolated section of river often becomes a dumping ground."
Hardie has seen it happen for decades. The list of items he's found reads like a scrapyard shopping list.
“We’ve found bikes and batteries, refrigerators, stoves and lots of other things. I’ve recovered TEC-9 [semi-automatic guns], bags of old vegetable matter. Once I found a very, very old handgun that I would imagine, based on the type, dated back to the gangster days of the 30s,” he said.
Once a year, Friends of the White River partners with Citizens Energy and the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) to clean up sections of the river in Indianapolis.
Since 1987, the group has collected more than 2 million pounds of junk. That's enough to cover the field at Lucas Oil Stadium nearly four feet deep.
But, that cleanup only takes place once a year. And, it only focused on debris that’s easily accessible and easily moved.
“If it’s not, it generally sits there until the next cleanups that take place,” Hardie said.
So, what about the debris we can’t see?
To find out what's really lurking beneath the water, I-Team 8 called in the services of an underwater detective, of sorts.
Dennis and Tammy Watters have been taking pictures beneath the surface for decades using side scan sonar. Their system is one of the most advanced in the nation, and was provided by Texas EquuSearch, one of the world’s leading search and rescue teams. Two years ago, EquuSearch was involved in the search for missing Indiana University student Lauren Spierer.
- ONLINE EXTRA | Behind-the-scenes video of the sonar in use
Watters’ company—Team Watters Sonar—has used underwater images to help recover the bodies of more than 70 missing persons, including Morgan Johnson, who was pulled from his car in a Plainfield retention pond this summer.
“In drownings, it takes us, to locate the person and recover them, minutes, where it used to takes days or weeks. We have recovered bodies in as little as 30 seconds from the time we turn the sonar on. That’s important for investigations and important for closure for families,” Watters said.
The system works by sending pings of high frequency sound into the deep.
"It does that hundreds of times per second. And it uses those sound recordings to make an actual, physical image. It allows us to see what's under the water without draining the water out and physically taking a picture,” Dennis Watters said.
In his past searches, Watters has seen lots of hidden debris.
“I’ve found everything from cars, boats, barrels, to washing machines. Bigger stuff is pretty easy to pull out of there,” he said.
But, it’s usually hard to hide in waterways as shallow as the White River. While some spots can reach depths of more than 50 feet, most stretches of the river are, on average, 8-12 feet deep. In some spots near downtown Indianapolis, stretches can be less than one foot deep during periods of low rainfall.
So, Watters was surprised when he turned the sonar system on and the images began to light up the screen.
Just a few minutes after launching from Broad Ripple Park, the sonar picked up the shape of a small boat on the river bottom.
“It’s about a 14 foot boat,” Watters said. “Looks like it’s been there for a while.”
“We had heard stories about some boats being down here near the Broad Ripple dam,” Hardie replied.
But, Hardie hadn’t heard about the other boats we found.
Just south of the 16th Street bridge, the sonar pinged on a large structure.
“Whatever it is, it’s really big,” Watters said.
Using a specialized measurement tool on his computer, Watters estimated the length of the structure.
“It’s about 66 feet by 15 feet. That’s big. It could be a work barge,” he said.
On the other side of the bridge, the sonar lit up again.
“This looks like a a section of old bridge. Maybe when they built this bridge they just let the old one sink,” Watters said.
The sonar found plenty of small items too.
“This looks like a newspaper stand,” Watters said, pointing to a small degrading square on the image near the Keystone Avenue bridge near 71st Street. "That’s not uncommon. People steal them, take the change out of them, and dump them."
We also found another submerged hot water heater, what appeared to be a severely degraded old couch, two mattresses and at least a dozen buried 55 gallon drums. What might be inside them remains a mystery.
The biggest surprise the sonar found came in a cluster just off White River Parkway, north of the 16th Street bridge.
“Jackpot city,” Watters said, his eyes widening on the sonar image. “That’s two cars there, and another five or six cars there. There’s a whole bunch here.”
In all, the sonar located what appeared to be seven or eight separate cars within a quarter of a mile of each other, all piled up in the muddy river bottom. The underwater parking lot is typical of what's Watters calls a "steal and dump" ring.
“Some of these are fairly recent,” Watters said. “There’s a ton of them in one spot.”
The vehicles weren’t the only ones we located in the water, either. The sonar captured what appeared to be either a pickup truck or a van submerged just south of the pileup. Whatever it was, Watters said, it was in rough shape.
“It's an old one,” he said. “The hood's up. You can tell that hit the water at high speed.”
The sonar also found another van just north of the Keystone Avenue bridge.
“This one is really old and pretty disintegrated. I doubt you could pull that out of there if you wanted to. It would just fall apart,” Watters said.
“WHY ARE THEY STILL HERE?”
I-Team 8 notified both IMPD and DPW of the sonar’s findings, and were told the city already knew some of the items—including at least several of the vehicles—were submerged in the water.
So, why haven’t they been removed?
"It really is a case-by-case basis,” said DPW spokesman Scott Manning. “Because, there are some cases where, if a large object has been left in there for a long period of time, removing it can cause more harm than good. Because the metal has degraded, because you've seen structural degradation, the process of removing a car, for example, that might have the majority of it rusted away, removing it could cause the structure to collapse and result in more debris in the river.”
In some cases, DPW may wait until water levels drop to attempt removal of large debris. In other cases, locations away from the shoreline make removal of large items extremely difficult and costly.
But, more often there's a different reason why debris isn’t removed: confusion over whose responsibility it is to find it in the first place.
"These are kind of smaller issues that don't have a clear indication of who should be responsible for them,” said Bruce Palin, Assistant Commissioner in the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s Office of Land Quality. “That's something that there isn't a real clear line of responsibility for, as far as those type of common areas. And often it does rely on communities and volunteer type efforts to do that. We do not have inspectors who can go out and travel up and down all the lakes and streams, looking for those kinds of things.”
Even when communities do conduct clean ups, the efforts are often limited by funding.
"It comes down to a matter of funds and resources that are set aside to deal with that specific kind of issue, which is why we end up with a lot of volunteer efforts,” Palin said.
“It is an expensive endeavor,” Manning agreed. “More important than that though, is that we see the need to protect our waterways as a high priority.”
So, how big of a problem is all the debris we found? In most cases, it's not even enough to rouse the attention of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management or the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Compared to what we do regulate, which are industrial kind of discharges on an ongoing basis into rivers, those represent a much greater concern than probably the amount of fluid you'd have in a particular vehicle,” Palin said.
IDEM and the EPA are much more focused on the billions of gallons of raw sewage dumped into the river each year during periods of heavy rain because of the city’s outdated combined sewer overflow system. That system is now being redesigned from the ground up in what will become the largest single public works project in Indianapolis history.
It’s estimated to divert up to 3.5 billion gallons of raw sewage away from the river by 2020.
The system was designed under the centuries-old belief that "dilution is the solution to pollution." The sheer volume of water in the river, some say, is enough to ease worries about chemicals from dumped piles of junk, large or small.
“But, there is a tipping point,” Hardie warns. “I call litter visual pollution. And, it may not be as harmful as what chemicals are, or some things. But, it's still pollution. And, it’s still an eyesore. And, it creates a perception about how people feel about the waterway.”
“It does take all of us,” Manning agreed. “If you identify an object in the water, no matter how long you suspect it may have been there, please report it. Because, that may be something we're not aware of, and we want to look at each of those cases and try to identify the best course of action to move ahead.”
The Noblesville Police Department says a 16-year-old girl who was shot late Sunday night died from her injuries.
Two men were arrested overnight after police say they stole a car and led officers on a chase.
Fire officials say a civilian medic was injured early Monday morning in a house fire.