Tribune-Star Editorial graphic

Strong, careful management of the environment matters in several ways. The quality of the air, water and land affects people's health, prosperity and quality of life.

Often, efforts to protect the environment get dismissed as an unnecessary drag on the economy. Such an outlook is shortsighted. Environmental protections, prudently applied, ensure a safe, clean atmosphere for residents, businesses and public facilities to thrive.

Terre Haute is dealing with another costly issue of contamination from the city's earlier industrial era.

Construction work on a new $54-million sanitary sewer lift station near the Wabash River was immediately halted after contaminated water was discovered Oct. 28, when hundreds of fish died in a contained lagoon pond. Groundwater had been pumped into the containment lagoon as a contractor dug down more than 40 feet as part of the new lift station project.

The contaminant appears to be creosote "as was used in the former railroad tie plant," City Engineer Chuck Ennis told the Tribune-Star after a meeting of the Terre Haute Board of Sanitary Commissioners on Tuesday. "So it looks like we are pulling that from the [old] tie plant, but we are over 1,000 feet north from the plant" property.

The city contacted the United States Environmental Protection Agency in October, and the EPA began testing north of Interstate 70 earlier this month to discern the origin of the contamination. The EPA was already performing remediation of coal tar under the surface of property south of I-70.

The city owns the property, formerly part of Western Tar Products, which manufactured coal-tar-based chemicals and treated railroad ties. The ponds are located on property formerly occupied by the International Paper mill, which closed 12 years ago.

When the Wabash River overflows and recedes, fish get trapped in the ponds. Those killed were not game fish, but Asian carp, an invasive species, Ennis said. Still, the stalling of the lift station project has fiscal costs, too.

At last week's meeting, city engineering staff said a large crane on site for the project's construction has sat idle at a cost of $30,000 a day. And, the hiring of a company to remove and filter tainted groundwater at the site could add $2.3 million to $5 million to the overall cost of the project on Prairieton Road, in addition to the crane fees.

A new lift station is needed as part of the city's larger, 20-year, $120-million combined sewer overflow control plan to meet federal standards.

This is not the first time the city has dealt with cleaning up costly contamination left from the past. Groundwater tests in 2014 revealed high levels of benzene and lead, which had broken down and passed through coal ash deposits on city property formerly occupied by a scrap company. Also in 2014, the city completed a $7-million cleanup of 20 acres of contaminated soil at the old Terre Haute Coke and Carbon plant at 13th and Hulman streets. Residents near that site recalled decades of coke dust floating onto their homes and yards every day.

Indiana does not have a track record of strongly guarding the Hoosier environment. State policies favor minimal regulation, an approach often described as "business friendly" and as a benefit to the broader population. This $2.3-million to $5-million cleanup, in addition to others in recent years, puts the benefits of stringent environmental monitoring in perspective.

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