CORVALLIS - Thousands of young trout have died during the last several days at an Oregon State University research laboratory from what may have been chemical ingestion caused by recent flooding.

As many as 15,000 trout have been found dead at the OSU Marine-Freshwater Biomedical Center just east of Corvallis on Highway 34. However, in the adjacent Salmon Disease Laboratory, no fish were harmed even though both laboratories draw their water from the same aquifer.

"When we first brought a few fish over from the other lab, and put them in the water where the trout had been, they also died," said George Bailey, director of the Marine-Freshwater Biomedical Center and a distinguished professor of environmental and molecular toxicology. "However, this is no longer happening."

A preliminary examination revealed no pathogens, leading researchers to believe the death was caused by a chemical substance, Bailey said. He suspects that during the recent flooding, a concentrated "plume" of contaminants may have worked its way into the lab's water system from the aquifer and killed the fish. A separate well for the other lab apparently was unaffected.

The university immediately notified the Department of Environmental Quality and other agencies about the death of the trout. Samples of water taken from the lab, the well and the aquifer during the crisis are undergoing further chemical and biological testing in hopes that the causative agent may be tracked down. Results will be announced if and when the cause of the problem is identified.

"As of this morning, we have 30 to 40 brood stock surviving and behaving normally," Bailey said. "Whatever caused the problem is gone, though it certainly did its damage."

Bailey said that if there is a good side to this, it is that the death of the trout may serve as a "yellow canary" to alert people to possible contaminants in shallow aquifers, especially during flooding. Unfortunately, he added, the loss of the trout will set OSU researchers back one to two years.

The lab is nationally known for its work in using trout to investigate human health concerns. Recent studies at the laboratory have investigated the basic mechanisms and causes of cancer, as well as aging, immune function, environmental pollution, and stress.

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George Bailey, 541-737-3164