By Margie Wuebker
The discharge of 4,000 gallons of cleaning solution and dairy products from The Dannon Co. overwhelmed the Minster wastewater treatment plant and killed thousands of fish in the Miami-Erie Canal.
Investigators from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency continue to look into the discharge that apparently occurred Saturday. Although an official cause has yet to be determined, EPA spokeswoman Dina Pierce indicated human error could be involved.
"Undiluted cleaning solution was released into Dannon's pretreatment system," Pierce told The Daily Standard. "This very alkaline, very caustic material wiped out microbial organisms or bacteria used in waste treatment."
The untreated waste at Dannon's pretreatment system then flowed into the village treatment plant, wiping out much of the beneficial bacteria there before flowing into the canal that runs through the Auglaize County community.
Joel Buddelmeyer, an investigator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, estimates at least 8,000 bass, carp and other fish died in a two-mile stretch of the canal. The spill was discovered around 7 a.m. Monday when wastewater treatment employees arrived for work, according to plant superintendent Dan Haehn.
"We knew there was a problem as soon as we smelled that odor," he added. "I can only describe it as the odor of death. There was no mistaking that we had problems."
Dannon, which produces 3 million cups of yogurt per day or about two-thirds of all yogurt in the U.S., took immediate steps after learning of the spill. Company spokesman Michael Neuwirth said in an Associated Press story that production was stopped temporarily as efforts focused on bringing the pretreatment facility back into compliance.
The village trucked 17,000 gallons of activated sludge from St. Marys to bring up bacteria levels, according to Haehn. It also purchased dehydrated bacteria, which acts on domestic sewage and liquid bacteria used in combating ammonia from suppliers.
Dannon, which also brought in sludge for its pretreatment facility, accounts for 50 percent of the 950,000 gallons of sewage the village wastewater plant treats daily.
Haehn said the ammonia level going into the canal Monday stood at 13 parts per million, with 4 parts per million considered toxic to fish and other aquatic life. The level has been reduced to 0.5, well below acceptable EPA levels.
The wastewater plant has not resumed discharging treated sewage into the canal, but that should begin soon upon EPA approval. Initially, the flow was slowed before being stopped in earnest Monday night.
"We are looking good as of 7 a.m. today," the superintendent says. "The situation has eased, but this has been a long week and it's only Thursday."
Pierce indicated it is to soon to discuss possible penalties, although at the very least Dannon officials could receive a written citation.
A bill covering the loss of fish and the cost of the investigation will be prepared, according to fish management supervisor Doug Malone with the Ohio Division of Wildlife. He had no estimate regarding the "moderate kill," indicating the value is assigned based on species and size.
Dannon officials did not return calls to The Daily Standard this morning.