Scrapper who took Monon Bridge was convicted for oil spill

This photo, taken last January, shows the Monon Bridge under demolition. Local, state and federal officials said the work took place without the necessary permits. The Hammond Historical Society unveiled the man responsible had a criminal record for spilling oil and tar into a Pennsylvania river.

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The scrapper who’s been cited for removing the Monon Bridge from the Grand Calumet River did prison time for spilling thousands of gallons of oil and tar into a Philadelphia river in the 1990s.

The Hammond Historical Society officials revealed recently that back in 1995, Kenneth Morrison was sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay $50,000 after he attempted to salvage a metal tank and ended up discharging 2,000 gallons of waste oil into the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania, and another 3,000 into the ground.

The cleanup of the 1993 spill cost an estimated $1.3 million, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Morrison, a Whiting resident who told The Times Media Co. last February he could take the Monon Bridge because it was “like a shipwreck,” had told investigators in Pennsylvania he didn’t report the spill into the Schuylkill because it “wasn’t a big deal,” according to Inquirer archives.

He could not be reached for comment. A listing for his home number was disconnected.

He’s under a criminal investigation for violating Indiana water quality standards, since the demolition of the Monon Bridge sent creosote-soaked railroad ties into the river.

Morrison had identified himself as the owner of LaSalle Central Contracting when he first approached Hammond about scrapping the Monon Bridge in 1991.

He was operating as the owner of LaSalle Central Contracting in Pennsylvania in the early 1990s when he was dismantling large industrial tanks that contained an estimated 100,000 gallons of waste oil and tar.

Investigators identified his scrap-metal salvaging operation as the source of the spill after people started calling authorities about an oil sheen that spread down the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

Morrison faced a potential sentence of up to 41 years in prison and a $2.25 million fine, but ended up being sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to violating clean water laws, as part of a plea agreement.

“We did an investigation on this guy and he’s a convicted felon,” said Richard Barnes, with the Hammond Historical Society.

“His whole attitude was, it was abandoned and I could take it. But he really can’t. He’s a crook. He’s a noted crook.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Morrison was indicted after salvaging without a permit or taking proper precautions.

Local authorities said Morrison did not get permission or permits last year before dismantling the Monon Bridge over the Grand Calumet River, which was built in 1909 for the now-abandoned Monon Railroad and which was one of only two bascule bridges remaining in the Region.

Hammond — which was deeded the bridge by the railroad company — said he couldn’t scrap it in October 2014, but he went ahead and did it anyway last year.

“I myself state that this property is abandoned,” Morrison told The Times Media Co. last February. “It’s like a shipwreck. If a ship sinks, that’s abandoned, and it’s fair game.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is now reviewing whether to press charges, Hammond Environmental Management Director Ronald Novak said.

Barnes, who estimates the scrap value of the bridge was around $340,000, questions why Hammond didn’t investigate Morrison’s background and stop him the first time he was caught undertaking a demolition, but Novak said he immediately notified all state and federal agencies as soon as he learned of the unauthorized scrapping.

“After I received an anonymous complaint, I went out and investigated,” Novak said.

“Then I immediately turned it over to the appropriate authorities: the U.S. EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. The first day we got a complaint, we called within minutes. I was the low man on the totem pole.”

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Business reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.