News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Top Story

December 10, 2012

Cleaning up a legacy: Old coke and carbon plant provided good, bad

TERRE HAUTE — Today, it’s only a big, open field with scattered scrub trees, weeds and pieces of industrial rubble.

It’s hard to believe it was once a mammoth manufacturing facility, swarming with workers, trucks and railroad cars while belching steam and smoke 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Originally built in 1916, Terre Haute’s former “coke plant” included several tall smoke stacks, a dozen brick buildings and its own railroad yard. On one side were tall mounds of black coal waiting to be converted into coke, a coal byproduct used in steel manufacturing.

Burning coal to make coke produces a number of valuable byproducts, such as gas, ammonia, tar and benzene. All these products added value to the plant, which provided gas for homes in Terre Haute and other products shipped around the Midwest.

But there’s another side to the plant’s history. Many of the men who worked there or their surviving family members, believe coal dust led to serious health problems and, in many cases, early deaths.

There’s also the environmental impact. The City of Terre Haute, the state of Indiana and the federal government have so far poured about a half-a-million dollars into studying the contamination at the site. Cleanup of about 20 of the site’s 53 acres is expected to begin next year at an estimated cost of $7 million. By the time the whole site is clean, in several more years, the final price tag could be more than twice that.

The making of a costly cleanup

The coke plant opened in 1916 as the Indiana Coke and Gas Company at a cost of $750,000, according to a contemporary article in the Terre Haute Tribune. Originally, the plant’s president, Alfred F. Ogle, hoped to put the facility at 13th Street and College Avenue. But those plans changed and the plant opened a few blocks to the south at 13th and Hulman Streets.

A formal opening of the plant in September 1916 included Ogle and other plant executives. Plant officials said the facility would produce 400 tons of coke and 2 million feet of gas per day. It was also expected to produce tar, ammonia and benzol.

In 1935, Indiana Gas and Chemical Corp. took over operation of the plant. That company, eventually acquired by the Hulman family, maintained ownership until the late 1980s. The Hulmans sold the plant in 1989 to Terre Haute Coke and Carbon, which only operated the plant for a short time before going out of business in the early 1990s. The facility was soon demolished and was eventually fully acquired by the City of Terre Haute’s Department of Redevelopment, the current property owner.

Dreaming of a better future

Since gaining control of the land, city officials have dreamed of turning the property into something positive. Presently, the goal is to transform the property into a park for light-industrial manufacturers, private firms that would pay property taxes.

But, to get there, the city has had to undergo the painstakingly slow process of studying the site for environmental hazards and cleaning it up, often using federal or state grant money, but also using local tax dollars.

One of the first environmental tests of the site came in 2000 through a $35,000 state grant. To no one’s surprise, that testing – and later studies – have uncovered a witch’s brew of hazardous materials in the soil, including benzo(a)pyrene, arsenic, lead, tar, ammonia, naphthalene and toluene.  

“We’ve been all over the site for years,” said Pat Martin, Terre Haute City Engineering Department Chief Planner, who has guided the city’s cleanup efforts for the past several years.

Now that the soil and groundwater testing is finished, the next step is to “dig and haul,” Martin said. A contractor, to be named Tuesday by the Terre Haute Sanitary Board, will essentially dig thousands of tons of contaminated soil out of 20 acres of the property along Hulman and 13th streets. That soil will be dumped at the Republic Services landfill in southern Vigo County and capped, a costly process in itself, Martin said. Then new, clean dirt will be brought in. The whole process should be completed by next fall, he said.

The price tag for this first 20-acre cleanup is expected to be about $7.5 million. By the time the entire property is cleaned up – something that could take another five to 10 years – that total cost could reach about $16 million, Martin estimated.

The money for the “dig and haul” clean up is coming from the state of Indiana and the federal EPA, Martin said. It’s not yet known from where money to complete the full cleanup will come, he said.

The human toll

While the environmental damage from the plant is reparable, the suspected human damage is not.

Lives were cut short by the difficult working conditions at the plant, several former workers or their surviving family members believe.

Annetta Sweatt’s former father-in-law, Everett Sweatt Sr., was one of many African-American workers at the plant, which was located near a largely African-American neighborhood on Terre Haute’s south side. When Sweatt first met Everett Sr., she could see his ankles and noticed they were much lighter than the rest of his body.

“I thought he might have a skin disease” on his legs, Sweatt recalled. It turned out, Everett Sr.’s face and arms were simply a deeper shade of black due to decades of exposure to coal dust in the plant where he worked for 40 years.

Several surviving family members of the plant’s workforce remember the hacking and coughing their loved ones experienced during off hours, coughing up “black stuff,” as Beverly Bailey, the widow of James Franklin Bailey recalled. He worked at the plant for 32 years before retiring at age 70, she said. He passed away in 2009 at age 87. Her late husband had chronic lung problems.

“It wasn’t a very good environment to work,” she said, adding many of her husband’s fellow workers also had lung problems or died of cancer. “All these other men died from lung problems,” she said. “I know it was related to that. It had to be.”

Johnnie Johnson of Vigo County worked at the plant for about 14 years and sometimes asks himself why he did, he told the Tribune-Star recently.

“It was a bad place to work,” he said. “You was breathing that coal dust.” Even when the plant introduced respirator masks, “sometimes those things didn’t do any good,” he said.

John Steward, who managed the plant after holding several lower positions during a 40-year career, agreed “the job was dirty.” However, “it was one of the best-paying jobs in town,” Steward added. “Generally, I can’t say enough for the steel workers, the work they did. I just really can’t say enough about those guys.”

Environmental scars

In addition to difficult working conditions, some former coke plant employees tell of less-than stellar environmental practices at the facility.

“That plant was an ecological nightmare,” said one former worker, who did not want to give his last name. He worked at the plant for a short time in the late 1980s. His father worked there for 24 years, he said. “His health was ruined from working in that plant,” he said.

“There were bubbling tar pits in the back of the plant,” he said. “It was an ecological and safety nightmare. I can’t believe taxpayers are on the hook for cleaning it up.”

Tar pits did exist on the plant property and at least one still does. On hot summer days, tar will bubble up through the ground in some areas, said Martin. Part of next year’s cleanup will involve capping the remaining tar pit and covering it with concrete, he said, adding the area where the tar pit exists will be off-limits for future building.

Two former workers, Ron Roberts and Bob Brenton, said they recall concealing asbestos from federal inspectors at the plant.

Roberts, now 69, believes a lung problem he currently suffers is the result of asbestos exposure.

“Our boss would come in [before a federal inspection] and say ‘Hide it,’” Roberts said of the asbestos at the plant. “We had to hide that.”

When the plant was dismantled, Brenton said the asbestos was simply placed in black plastic bags and thrown into ordinary trash receptacles to be taken to a landfill.

Early cleanup

The Hulman family sold Indiana Gas and Chemical Co. to Welsh Coal and Coke Co. of New Boston, Ohio, in 1988. The new company would change the name of the business to Terre Haute Coke and Carbon. But the new ownership failed to make a go of the plant and was out of business in a few years.

Former employees who worked for both owners said Terre Haute Coke and Carbon was not as well managed as Indiana Gas and Chemical had been.

“You could see long-term investments weren’t being made there,” said Brenton, speaking of Coke and Carbon.

After Terre Haute Coke and Carbon went out of business, Hulman-owned Indiana Gas and Chemical sought a court-order to allow it back on the property to undertake environmental cleanup, said Doug Boles, a spokesman for Hulman & Co. in Indianapolis. The Hulmans spent between $7- and $10 million demolishing the structures and cleaning up the property, he said.

“They did it voluntarily,” Boles said of the Hulman-sponsored cleanup. Because of the Hulman’s Terre Haute connection, “they were trying to be good citizens,” he said.

Former plant manager Steward agrees the Hulmans paid millions to clean up the southern part of the property. That may explain why the southern section is far less contaminated than the northern portion, Martin said.

It was a job

The “coke plant” often employed between 125 and 150 people, according to various accounts. As domestic demand for coke declined in the 1980s, that number would fall, Steward said. That was part of a global trend. Today, almost no coke-producing plants remain in the U.S., he said.

“I know it wasn’t no easy place to work,” said Georgie Bailey, whose husband Campbell worked at the plant about 30 years. Like many of the employees of the plant, Campbell could walk to work, she said. He died in 1989 at age 70 with emphysema, she said. But, like many of his coworkers, Campbell also smoked cigarettes.

Campbell, known as C.L., didn’t complain about his job at Indiana Gas and Chemical, Georgie noted. Despite the difficult conditions, “it was a steady job,” she said.

While many former workers complain about their conditions, only one said he felt the pay was also poor.

“I made decent money there,” said Brenton. “It was the dirtiest job I ever had, but I had a family to raise.”

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Top Story
  • firstcarphotoforweb copy.jpg Remember Your First Car?

    Tell us about it! Your memories could be part of an upcoming story in the Tribune-Star. Click on this story to find out how.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Mushroom2 (2).jpg Morels: Foragers can now go off-trail

    Rain that pounded Brown County State Park in early April dampened the number of hikers and mountain bikers in Indiana’s largest state park, but foragers of the property’s 15,000 acres of forest welcomed the weather.

    April 13, 2014 2 Photos

  • APTOPIX California Bu_Ter (2).jpg 10 killed in California school bus crash

    ORLAND, Calif. (AP) — A FedEx tractor-trailer crossed over a grassy median on a Northern California freeway and slammed into a bus carrying 44 high school students in an explosive crash that left 10 people dead, authorities said.

    April 11, 2014 2 Photos

  • Ukraine_Ter .jpg 10 Things to Know for Tuesday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about today, April 8:

    April 8, 2014 1 Photo

  • MET 040714 SEX HOTEL.jpg Where we house released sex offenders

    A convicted sex offender who reportedly grabbed a 5-year-old child last week and allegedly molested the child at a Terre Haute motel faces multiple felony charges.

    April 7, 2014 2 Photos 1 Story

  • Fort Hood_Tayl.jpg UPDATE Officials: 4 dead, including gunman, at Fort Hood

    A gunman opened fire Wednesday at Fort Hood in an attack that left four dead, including the shooter, law enforcement officials said.

    April 2, 2014 4 Photos

  • barbour No shows escaped death by Craigslist killer

    Miranda Barbour says other central Pennsylvania men responded to her Craigslist ad before murder victim Troy LaFerrara of Port Trevorton, but they dodged death when they failed to appear for her promise of female companionship.

     

    March 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Malaysia Plane_Ter .jpg UPDATE: Relatives sob as Malaysia confirms plane is lost

    BEIJING (AP) — Relatives shrieked and sobbed uncontrollably. Men and women nearly collapsed, held up by loved ones. Their grief came pouring out after 17 days of waiting for definitive word on the fate of the passengers and crew of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet.

    March 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • APTOPIX Chicago Train_Ter .jpg Train derails, climbs escalator at Chicago airport

    CHICAGO (AP) — An eight-car Chicago commuter train plowed across a platform and scaled an escalator at an underground station at one of the nation’s busiest airports early today, injuring 32 people on board, officials said.

    March 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • Film Casting Jesus_Ter .jpg 10 Things to Know for Friday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about today, March 7:

    March 7, 2014 1 Photo

  • US Obama Ukraine Russ_Ter .jpg 10 Things to Know for Tuesday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about today, March 4:

    March 4, 2014 1 Photo

  • 86th Academy Awards -_Ter (2).jpg ‘12 Years a Slave’ wins best picture at Oscars

    LOS ANGELES (AP) — Perhaps atoning for past sins, Hollywood named the brutal, unshrinking historical drama “12 Years a Slave” best picture at the 86th annual Academy Awards.

    March 3, 2014 2 Photos

  • Planet Bonanza_Ter .jpg 10 Things to Know for Thursday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about today, Feb. 27:

    February 27, 2014 1 Photo

  • Nets Lakers Basketbal_Ter .jpg 10 Things to Know for Monday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about today, Feb. 24:

    February 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • Ukraine Protests_Ter .jpg 10 Things to Know for Friday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about today, Feb. 21:

    February 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Winter Weather Michig_Morg.jpg After short break, winter returns to central U.S.

    CHICAGO — After a brief respite of sunshine, winter returned to much of the nation's midsection on Thursday, bringing a chilly mix of rain, sleet and snow, and at least one tornado.

    February 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • ice sign.jpg Sheriff's deputies reporting several accidents due to 'black ice'

    Vigo County Sheriff's deputies have responded to several crashes due to icy road conditions this morning.

    February 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Switzerland Plane Div_Ter .jpg 10 Things to Know for Monday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about today, Feb. 17:

    February 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • TeenKiller.jpg Teen admits killing Craigslist contact, claims to have slain at least 22 more

    A Pennsylvania woman who is charged, along with her newlywed husband, with killing a man they met through Craigslist admitted to the slaying in a jailhouse interview with a newspaper and said she has killed more than 20 other people across the country, claims police said they are investigating.

    February 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Obit Shirley Temple_Ter .jpg Shirley Temple, iconic child star, dies at 85

    SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Shirley Temple, the dimpled, curly-haired child star who sang, danced, sobbed and grinned her way into the hearts of Depression-era moviegoers, has died. She was 85.

    February 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • MET100214igloo allen.jpg VIDEO: Rosedale igloo

    Keaton Allen checks one of the rooms in the snowy structure he and friends Noelanie Loomis, Gabe Whitford and Isaiah Bowman are building at the park in Rosedale.

    February 10, 2014 4 Photos 1 Video

  • 107518.jpg Church presents ‘Love Languages’ author’s video seminar on Valentine’s weekend

    Gary Chapman wrote the original edition of “The Marriage You’ve Always Wanted” in 1979.
    Now a nationally known author and relationship counselor, with a radio program heard on more than 100 stations across the United States, Chapman first published the book under the title, “Toward a Growing Marriage,” 35 years ago.

    February 10, 2014 1 Photo

  • gold 1 OLYMPIC ROUNDUP DAY 2: Grim talk turns to gold for now at Olympics

    All the gloom and grim talk leading to the Sochi Olympics at last gave way to more uplifting things.

     

    February 8, 2014 5 Photos

  • SPT 020514 ODUM LOSS.jpg UPDATE: No. 4 Shockers hold off Indiana State 65-58

    The deal was on the table for Indiana State. The stakes? The chance to end Wichita State’s perfect season and to earn a signature win that would earn national notice and possibly more.

    February 5, 2014 10 Photos 2 Stories

  • MET020514snowzimmerman.jpg Vigo schools on 2-hour delay Thursday

    Vigo County students will be back to school Thursday.
    According to Vigo County School Corp. Superintendent Danny Tanoos, schools will be on a two-hour delay on Thursday.
    Due to inclement weather, schools were canceled today in Vigo and surrounding counties.

    February 5, 2014 1 Photo

  • CVS Caremark Tobacco _Ter .jpg Obama praises CVS for pulling tobacco from shelves

    WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is praising CVS Caremark for its decision to stop selling tobacco products at its drugstores.

    February 5, 2014 1 Photo

  • SPT010114ISUgeneral odum.jpg Odum, Van Vleet two of Valley's best playmakers

    Point guards do so many things for a basketball team, but the most important thing the best of them do is embody grace under pressure.
    That grace is tested when the shot clock gets below the 10-second mark. Every decision they make takes on more urgency. The good decisions have a high reward, the bad ones can carry the weight of sinking their team.

    February 5, 2014 2 Photos

  • Winter Weather Pennsy_Ter .jpg 10 Things to Know for Tuesday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about today, Feb. 4:

    February 4, 2014 1 Photo

  • Prisoner Escape-Michi_Ter .jpg UPDATE: Indiana State Police nab prison escapee

    A convicted killer who peeled a hole in two fences with his hands to escape from a Michigan prison before abducting a woman and fleeing to Indiana was captured Monday evening after a chase, authorities said.

    February 3, 2014 1 Photo

  • Deadly Sugar_Ter .jpg Sugar tied to fatal heart woes; soda’s a culprit

    CHICAGO (AP) — A big national study says too much sugar could be deadly, at least when it comes to fatal heart problems.

    February 3, 2014 1 Photo

Latest News
TribStar.com Poll
AP Video
Raw: What's Inside a Commercial Jet Wheel Well Admirers Flock to Dole During Kansas Homecoming U.S. Paratroopers in Poland, Amid Ukraine Crisis Raw: Erupting Volcanoes in Guatemala and Peru Cubs Superfans Celebrate Wrigley's 100th Video Shows Possible Syrian Gas Attack Raw: Cattle Truck Overturns in Texas Raw: Obama Arrives in Japan for State Visit Raw: Leopard Bites Man in India S.C. Man Apologizes for Naked Walk in Wal-Mart Motels Near Disney Fighting Homeless Problem Michigan Man Sees Thanks to 'bionic Eye' SKorea Ferry Toll Hits 156, Search Gets Tougher Raw: Deadly Bombing in Egypt Raw: Violence Erupts in Rio Near Olympic Venue Alibaba IPO Could Be Largest Ever for Tech Firm FBI Joining Probe of Suburban NY 'Swatting' Call US Reviews Clemency for Certain Inmates Air Force: $4.2B Saved From Grounding A-10s Raw: Anti-Obama Activists Fight Manila Police
NDN Video
Michael Strahan's First Day on "GMA" Amazon's Deal With HBO Leapfrogs Streaming Rivals Stephen Colbert Tells David Letterman His Plan for 'Late Show' Georgetown police officer filmed tripping students Viral: It's Not Pitbull - It's Amy Poehler! Recycling Highlights for Earth Day Lupita Nyong'o Named People's 'Most Beautiful' Peeps Launched into Outer Space NYPD's Twitter Request For Photos Backfires New HBO Go Commercials Capture Awkward Family TV Watching Raw: Leopard Bites Man in India Rise of the Milkbots Jenna Dewan-Tatum Strips Down TRENDING: Brian Williams Raps 'Gin and Juice' on ‘Tonight Show’ Middle School heroes rescue students from burning bus WHOPPER OF FISHING STORY: Florida man catches massive Mako shark Maks Chmerkovskiy's "DWTS" Meltdown The many faces of Mike Woodson Ape Builds A Fire And Toasts Marshmallows In Amazing BBC Video Manchester Utd sack manager David Moyes
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.
  • -

     

    March 12, 2010

activity