13 Investigates: Angry residents never told of city’s plan to kill thousands of neighborhood fish

Hundreds of dead fish fill the drained retention pond at Castleton Farms.
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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Northeast side residents are furious about dead fish stinking up their neighborhood, and they believe they were misled by the city’s intentional plan to kill the fish.

Eyewitness News first reported the problem over the weekend when Castleton Farms residents contacted WTHR to complain about thousands of fish lying along the banks of their neighborhood retention pond. Those residents shared their stomach-churning experience of living with the smell of maggot-infested fish rotting for days in the hot Indiana summer. They had no idea that a city project meant to help reduce flooding problems would result in so many dead fish, frogs and turtles.

But residents were supposed to know.

13 Investigates has discovered a communication breakdown prevented important information from being shared with hundreds of residents, who had previously been told a long-planned drainage project would not harm wildlife in their neighborhood.

Why the pond was drained

Neighborhoods along Hague Road have experienced significant drainage and flooding problems after heavy downpours, which prompted city leaders to devise a $2.7 million fix. Part of that fix includes draining and dredging several neighborhood retention ponds along the Upper Blue Creek water shed to allow the ponds to collect more storm water that would otherwise overflow into roads and basements.

Draining the Castleton Farms retention pond was supposed to begin this fall, but that timeframe was moved up, and contractors began the project last week. The project was not a surprise to nearby residents, who were notified in their July neighborhood newsletter “sometime in the next two months, our pond will be completely drained and dredged to allow it to hold more water.” The newsletter also informed residents “our fish and turtles will be humanely caught and re-located during the process.”

Residents are tired of the smell of dead fish after a retention pond was drained at their complex. (WTHR Photo/Allen Carter)

Connie King, vice president of the Castleton Farms Homeowners Association (HOA) said a DPW representative met with neighborhood residents last year to discuss the project and reassured them that fish would not be killed during the project.

“We figured they wouldn’t be able to save all of the fish, but we expected them to try to save some of them,” King told WTHR Monday afternoon. “You can ask anyone who lives around here. They all heard the same thing.”

RELATED: Drained pond causes fishy problem for residents

“They didn’t mention how they were going to [re-locate the fish], just that they would do it. We all heard it – everyone at the meeting heard it,” echoed fellow HOA board member Lorraine Riegner.

But last week, residents and neighborhood leaders found thousands of dead fish at the bottom of their empty retention pond, and the stench was overwhelming. As some residents rushed to save fish and snapping turtles on their own by catching them and releasing them in other nearby retention ponds, others decided to remain indoors to avoid the horrible smell of decaying fish. A community that is usually teeming with bike riders, dog walkers and joggers on a sunny August day looked like a ghost town. The neighborhood swimming pool, which sits about 100 feet from the retention pond, sat empty.

“What they said would happen didn’t happen, and it makes me sick,” said Carol Liming, who’s lived in Castleton Farms for 18 years. “It’s just terrible. Someone dropped the ball. It feels like someone lied to us.”

Did the city lie to residents?

City officials insist killing all of the fish was part of the plan from the very beginning, and that residents were not misled.

“We have worked constantly with the HOA to communicate our plans and [the fish kill] is part of the standard practice for draining a pond of this variety,” said Ben Easley, a spokesman for the Indianapolis Department of Public Works.

Easley did not explain why a DPW representative told Castleton Farms residents that fish would be caught and re-located rather than killed, but he told 13 Investigates that plans for the fish kill were revealed long before the pond was drained.

To support his claim, Easley sent 13 Investigates internal emails between project engineers and the management company that represents the Castleton Farms Homeowners Association.

In a February 2, 2018 email, an engineer from American Structurepoint was asked whether the fish would survive the draining and dredging project and remain in the pond. The engineer wrote, "No, the pond will need to be restocked after construction."

Five days later, that email was shared with Nancy Winship at Kirkpatrick Management. At the time, Winship was the management company’s property manager and point of contact for the Castleton Farms HOA, and was supposed to keep the residents informed about the project.

The president of the homeowners association says Kirkpatrick never shared that information with him when he joined the board last December. Monday afternoon, Castleton Farms HOA president Jerry Collins told 13 Investigates he first learned that fish in the retention pond would be killed during the first week of July 2019. Collins admitted that he failed to inform other board members and Castleton Farms residents about the new information, even after the HOA mistakenly notified the community that fish would be caught and re-located rather than killed. He also acknowledged knowing that many board members and resident believed that fish would not be left die when the pond was drained.

"I guess what people heard isn't what actually happened. Why that is, I don't know. I'm just grateful the city is doing something to fix the flooding problems," Collins said.

Winship no longer works for Kirkpatrick Management, and company vice president Dan Quigley told 13 Investigates he did not have any comment.

The Castleton Farms neighborhood pool sits empty. Residents say they can't go there because of the smell of rotting fish nearby. (WTHR/Bob Segall)
Thousands of decaying fish still lie in the neighborhood's drained retention pond. (WTHR/Bob Segall)
Thousands of decaying fish still lie in the neighborhood's drained retention pond. (WTHR/Bob Segall)
A dead fish, picked apart by turkey vultures, lies along a walking path in the Castleton Farms neighborhood. (WTHR/BobSegall)
Residents in the Castleton Farms neighborhood won't use their porches until the stench of dead fish goes away. (WTHR/Bob Segall)
Connie King says she has to burn scented candles inside her Castleton Farms home to cover the smell of rotten fish. (WTHR/Bob Segall)

DPW says it took necessary steps to inform the neighborhood HOA of what would happen.

“I have no idea how they communicate to the residents. I just know from a DPW perspective, they’ve been kept in the loop at least at the leadership level about our plans and proceedings,” Easley told WTHR.

King, the HOA board vice president, disagrees. “They did not tell us the truth. They told us a completely different story,” she said. “And if things changed and they told Jerry, he should have told the rest of us.”

“Sounds like they lied to us, basically,” said Liming. “Who knows? Maybe it was just a miscommunication. Either way, it’s very disappointing. There’s rotting fish everywhere and it’s horrible. I don’t care who’s responsible. They just need to fix it.”

Getting rid of the fish

Work crews took steps Monday morning to reduce the horrible smell by covering many of the fish with several tons of mud and dirt. With the help of cloud cover, the strategy seemed to help – at least depending on which way the wind blew.

It’s a temporary fix since the drainage project is designed to remove dirt and mud from the retention pond, not add to it. The next step, according to DPW, is to remove the top layer of silt and mud, which will remove the rotting fish that have forced residents to spend most of their time indoors.

“That should be complete by the end of the week and taken to a landfill,” Easley told 13 Investigates. He said DPW does not want residents to be exposed to the smell of decaying fish any longer than necessary.

“Every effort has been taken to minimize the amount of time that this stage exists,” he explained. “Trying to limit it to a week, we’re doing it just as fast as we can.”

“I want it done now! Not in a few days. Not next week. Now!” said an angry Susan Miston, who’s tired of living in a neighborhood overrun by the smell of rotten fish. She hopes city officials can help expedite the process. “Maybe they should try living here. I wonder how they’d like it,” she added.

The Castelton Farms HOA board plans to meet Thursday night to discuss the problem.

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