News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 12, 2013

EDITORIAL: Better monitoring needed to prevent local environmental messes

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The nasty, hazardous messes lurking in the community raise a bottom-line, red-flag question.

Could these environmental problems have been monitored and, thus, prevented?

Vigo County and Terre Haute residents have recently learned about long-existing problems of improperly dumped tires, chemicals and industrial waste at three local sites. It is obviously too late for prevention. Instead, the community is left to calculate the cleanup costs, and hope the people and entities responsible for the dumping can be determined and held liable. The public will pay a significant price, too, directly and indirectly.

Each situation brought to light in recent months should change and intensify the regulation of refuse disposal.

In early April, southern Vigo County farmers voiced concerns about hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of tires illegally dumped in a remote section of Prairieton Township, near Honey Creek, the Wabash River and several homes. Piles of tires cover the landscape along Honey Creek levee, as well as farmland, grounds owned by steel company CSN, and individual property owners. Among other environmental issues, dumped tires create a vast breeding ground for West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes.

Illegal tire dumpers are hard to catch, one of the farmers explained. A county official said unscrupulous firms charge people to dispose of tires and then illegally dump them in an isolated area for free. It happens in other secluded sectors of Vigo County, too. Large tire dumps become matters for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to address, the county official said.

The dumping near Prairieton has been a problem for decades, the farmer said, adding, “Something needs to be done.”

In late April, preparations were set for the $5.3-million cleanup of 20 acres of land at the corner of 13th and Hulman streets, where the former Terre Haute Coke and Carbon plant produced coke and manufactured gas from 1926 to 1988. It is labeled a “brownfield project” — a piece of ground abandoned and contaminated by an industry but targeted for remediation and redevelopment. The state — the Indiana Brownfield Program and the Indiana Finance Authority — will fund the cleanup, including the removal of 80,000 cubic yards of dirt laced with tar, arsenic, lead, naphthalene, benzo(a)pyrene and other hazardous substances.

The tainted soil will be trucked to the Sycamore Ridge Landfill in southern Vigo County.

Last week, testing commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed lead contamination well above federal regulatory levels on a 33-acre land parcel on the east bank of the Wabash River. This isn’t a slight, just-above-the-threshold amount. “You’re talking 10 times the regulatory level in three of the samples and three times to four times in the other two,” Jason Sewell, on-site coordinator for the EPA, told the Tribune-Star’s Arthur Foulkes.

The lead levels create a problem for the city of Terre Haute, which hopes to build a small portion of its upgraded wastewater treatment system on the acreage. The city acquired the ground at no charge last year from a West Terre Haute-based salvage company. The “site history” on the EPA report shows ownership of the land has changed hands several times since the 1950s. Besides the lead, the site also contains 55-gallon barrels, a storage tank, slag, foundry sand and ash, tires, crushed vehicles, auto parts, abandoned vehicles and other waste.

The EPA will determine how the lead ended up on the land, and work with the “responsible parties” to clean it up. Mayor Duke Bennett wants the wastewater improvement project to continue moving forward, and said if the city is required to pay for a portion of the cleanup, the EPA will reimburse it. Sewell had no immediate estimate of the cleanup cost.

Responsible parties would not have dumped these hazards in the first place. Because such irresponsibility was able to persist, more stringent regulation — on federal, state and local levels — is clearly needed. Our community should not be a dump.