News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 13, 2012

EDITORIAL: Inherited public expense

Generations later, bill comes due for ‘coke plant’ cleanup

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The phrase “leaving the bill to our grandchildren” has become popular in recent years. Typically, it refers to the federal government spending money while the deficit continues to grow. Left unchecked, future generations will have to pay the tab to balance the budget. In the meantime, the public and our elected officials must weigh the value of present expenditures against the deficit they augment.

Terre Haute is experiencing a different kind of inherited public expense.

On Tuesday, the city Sanitary Board chose an Indianapolis firm — HIS Constructors Inc. — to dig up and haul away thousands of tons of contaminated soil on a weedy, rock-strewn, 20-acre patch of property at the corner of 13th and Hulman streets now owned by the Terre Haute Department of Redevelopment. From 1916 until 1992, that lot and 33 adjoining acres were occupied by a plant that converted coal into “coke,” a coal byproduct used in steel manufacturing. The coke-making process generated other sought-after byproducts such as gas, ammonia, tar and benzene.

Over the years, the plant’s name changed a few times — Indiana Coke and Gas, Indiana Gas and Chemical, Terre Haute Coke and Carbon — along with its ownership. Local folks called it the “coke plant,” not to be confused with a different Terre Haute factory where the Coca-Cola bottle was created. The work was gritty, dusty and hard, as a retrospective story by the Tribune-Star’s Arthur Foulkes described in the Dec. 9 editions. In return, those employees had “one of the best-paying jobs in town,” the story explained.

A future cost was accumulating, though.

Those consequences manifested through chronic health problems and shortened lives of former employees and in damage to the environment of that now-idle sector of town. Workers and their survivors recalled bubbling tar pits on the grounds, coal-dust-filled air, and hidden asbestos. Environmental testing began in 2000 and has uncovered myriad hazardous chemicals in the soil — benzo(a)pyrene, arsenic, lead, tar, ammonia, naphthalene, and toluene.

That year, the city Department of Redevelopment used a grant to start those tests, and began a long, methodical, admirable effort to clean up the site and restore its health enough to become a park for light-industrial manufacturing. After decades of inactivity, private industry could return to the grounds, boosting the economy and putting the site back on the tax rolls. Someday.

The current generation is still calculating the bill, though.

The painstaking process of testing, preliminary cleanups and land acquisition has taken years. Already, the city, state and federal governments have spent a half-million dollars figuring out what kind of toxic leftovers lurk there. The removal of the contaminated soil on that 20-acre section is expected to be completed by the end of 2013, and will carry an estimated pricetag of $7.5 million, paid by the state of Indiana and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Cleanup of the entire 53 acres could take another five to 10 years. The final, bottom-line fiscal bill may reach $16 million.

The coke plant, as one former employee put it, “was an ecological and safety nightmare. I can’t believe taxpayers are on the hook for cleaning it up.” The last owners of Terre Haute Coke and Carbon went out of business in the early 1990s. The previous owners, the Hulmans, voluntarily came back and spent between $7 million and $10 million to demolish the buildings and clear the property, “trying to be good citizens,” a company official said.

Now it’s 2012. In the hands of this generation rests an invoice, run up long ago, in terms of human health, environmental safety and taxpayer expenses. It seems the future was forgotten somewhere in the past.