A huge mound of oil-saturated dirt containing lead, arsenic, benzene and other pollutants may stay on the Gary/Chicago International Airport property, a move some fear could stall future development there.
Originally, all polluted soil dug up in the airport's runway expansion project was to be hauled away. But when oil saturated peat was found in the path of the runway extension, the airport opted to simply pile it at the south end of the polluted site.
"The idea has always been to get any contaminated material off the property," project expansion manager Scott Wheeler said. "But it was simply that the volume of material found was more significant than anyone thought."
The plan to leave the soil on airport property is one more sign of the financial stresses afflicting the expansion project. Wheeler recently told the airport authority board hauling the contaminated soil away would cost $3.78 million and bust the expansion project's $166 million budget.
So the airport authority is asking environmental regulators for permission to leave the contaminated soil on airport property.
A key airport tenant, the Gary Jet Center, has objected to the plan for leaving the contaminated soil in place at meetings with airport officials. Gary Jet Center owner Wil Davis said leaving the pile in place will stall the airport's plan for development around the extended runway.
"It defeats the entire purpose of why we are doing this project in the first place," Davis said.
But for the polluted pile, as big as the airport's largest hangar, sits there. The airport is seeking permission from environmental regulators to form the pile into a berm, cap it with clay, and plant grass, Wheeler said.
Airport interim Director Steve Landry said the airport does not intend to keep the pile of contaminated soil on airport property forever.
"There is potential for development down there," Landry said. "But we know there won't be any development done here if the runway is not extended."
That reasoning doesn't satisfy critics, including former director of the airport Paul Karas, who points out the area where the polluted dirt pile now sits was slated for eventual development as an air cargo or other facility.
"The airport could be shooting itself in the foot with this plan," Karas said.
The polluted tracts
There are two polluted tracts the airport is now dealing with in discussions with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The first is known as the NBD Trust property, which lies between Cline Avenue and the current footprint of the Gary airport. The airport purchased 84 acres of it five years ago.
Dirt from the NBD site was dug up during the first phase of the clearing and grading work last year for the runway extension. The peat covering the area was found to be oil saturated, Wheeler said.
In addition to oil, it contains other pollutants. A final environmental impact statement prepared for the Federal Aviation Administration in 2004 stated pollution at the NBD site included benzene, lead and arsenic at hazardous levels. The FAA decision on the airport expansion noted some areas may have to be cleaned up to "residential standards" to allow FAA personnel to work there.
When asked to confirm if those substances were in the dirt now piled at the south end of the NBD property, Landry said they may be present -- but samples recently extracted showed they were not present at hazardous levels.
The airport authority spent $1.24 million in 2011 to haul away and dispose of dirt at the southern edge of the property. That soil was found to contain lead, oil and PCBs, the last a chemical banned in the United States since 1979.
The other polluted site the airport is dealing with is even more problematic. It is a heavily contaminated 4.1 acre parcel known as Conservation Chemical on the other side of the railroad embankment at the northwest end of the runway. The airport acquired the property in 2001. Before that, an oil refinery, an asphalt plant and a hazardous disposal facility operated there.
In the late 1990s, the EPA undertook a cleanup including the installation of half a dozen wells in 2003 to collect oil. By the time those wells were closed down in 2007, 1.4 million gallons of oil had been sucked up. But there is more oil in the ground and three lagoons at the site remain heavily contaminated with a stew of hazardous chemicals.
In 2008, the IDEM issued a "comfort letter" to the airport stating the agency was likely to allow the airport to proceed with the expansion as long as it came up with a plan for taking care of the pollution.
On Jan. 25, the airport authority submitted a draft soil remediation plan to IDEM. However, the airport and IDEM denied Times requests for the remediation plan. According to IDEM spokesman Barry Sneed, a final remediation plan could be ready for public release within a month.
Wheeler said a proposal for a "slurry wall," basically an underground dike to contain pollution on the NBD site, is also being discussed with IDEM and the EPA.
Exactly what remediation the more highly polluted Conservation Chemical site will need is still being investigated and discussed with environmental regulators, Wheeler said.
"Everyone knew there was contamination out there," Wheeler said. "But no one knew the quantity we would run into."