GARY | Worse-than-expected ground contamination must be cleaned up before the Gary/Chicago International Airport can complete its $166 million runway expansion, which will be delayed until late next year.
Officials announced Tuesday the major project won't be done until September 2014. Work was supposed to be finished by the end of the year on a 1,900-foot addition to the airport's 7,000-foot main runway, which will lengthen it enough to allow flights to the West Coast.
But pollution must be cleaned up and railroad tracks still must be moved before the runway construction can be finished, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said at an announcement with airport and Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority officials.
"The city of Gary and Northwest Indiana have heavy industrial legacies which bring a lot of sensitive and unexpected environmental issues to resolve," Freeman-Wilson said. "We are all working together to tackle the problems quickly and effectively so that final-phase construction can swiftly move forward."
The Federal Aviation Administration agrees the opening date should be postponed, and it will work with the airport to properly deal with the railroad and environmental issues, FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said.
Bulldozers turned up larger-than-anticipated quantities of toxins in the grounds, including PCBs, lead, oils and arsenic. Railroad tracks also must be relocated, but the railroads companies still are working out right-of-way issues.
Canadian National Railway Co. must move its tracks out of the way of the extended runway and over to the Norfolk Southern tracks north of the airport. Freeman-Wilson said the railroads didn't share the city's sense of urgency and called on them Tuesday to settle their legal negotiations so the city could move forward with the expansion project.
Railroad tracks also have to be moved so the Airport Authority can clean a Superfund site. Airport officials had known that Conservation Chemical Co. had dumped waste on land that is now owned by the airport, but they didn't realize how much.
A previous sampling suggested that about 80,000 cubic yards of chemicals were in the ground. But when workers started pushing dirt, they discovered the figure is likely closer to 120,000 cubic yards, said Gary/Chicago International Airport Interim Director Steve Landry.
Airport officials still don't know the full extent of the pollution and exactly how much cleanup will be required. Airport officials originally had thought the chemicals could be left in the ground, but a recent sampling identified the presence of some hazardous waste that will have to be hauled out of the airport, Landry said.
PCBs and other dangerous chemicals contaminated the ground at the northwest end of the runway, where a guide pole with a flashing red light and other instruments would be installed, Molinaro said. FAA workers would have to install and maintain that equipment, and the agency doesn't want to expose them to potentially harmful chemicals such as arsenic.
"They can't be standing on that contamination for 10 years," he said.
How much the cleanup would cost isn't known yet. Airport officials will work with the FAA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environment Management to assess the extent of the contamination and to develop a remediation plan.
The hope is that the project still can be completed while staying within the $166 million budget, but the city has been in talks with a number of federal agencies about lining up additional funding if the environmental cleanup drives up the overall project cost, Freeman-Wilson said.
A delay won't change the airport's plans to move forward with a public-private partnership, in the hope of luring private investors who could put at least $100 million into the airport and the surrounding area.
The delay is however a definite setback, said Gary Jet Center CEO Wil Davis.
"It's very disappointing for all parties concerned," he said. "This is a huge deal, and it's disappointing to see it not staying on track."