NIRPC committee wants radiation study in The Pines

2012-11-24T00:00:00Z 2012-11-26T01:16:54Z NIRPC committee wants radiation study in The PinesLauri Harvey Keagle lauri.keagle@nwi.com, (219) 852-4311 nwitimes.com

A Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission Environmental committee wants the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate radiation levels in The Pines after hearing concerns from residents over coal ash from a facility in their community.

Paul Kysel and Larry Jensen of PINES -- People in Need of Environmental Safety -- addressed the NIRPC Environmental Management Policy Committee earlier this month with the results of the group's radiation study.

Jensen, a former EPA employee, is a physicist with a master's degree in radiation and public health. He described himself as an award-winning "Superfund and radiation expert."

Jensen presented the results of an independent radiation study he performed for the PINES group in 2009 using a hand-held meter. The study focused on the streets in The Pines, which were built using fly ash -- a byproduct of burning coal for fuel -- as fill.

"Quite a few towns and municipalities around power plants are given fly ash as safe fill," Kysel said.

The town is no stranger to fly ash. A landfill operated by Brown Inc. of Michigan City, referred to as Yard 520, holds 1 million tons of fly ash created by NIPSCO's burning of coal in its power plants. The facility was cited by the EPA in 2000 for contaminating drinking water wells in The Pines and deemed a Superfund site.

As part of a consent decree reached between the U.S. EPA and NIPSCO, drinking water connections to Michigan City water were provided to some impacted residents and bottled water was provided to others.

Nick Meyer, spokesman for NIPSCO, said work continues on the issue.

"We've taken a very conservative approach expanding water well beyond the circle believed to be impacted," Meyer said.

As for the new concerns raised by residents about radiation, Meyer said NIPSCO has not been contacted by the EPA or any other regulatory agency about the issue.

Representatives from Brown Inc. could not be reached for comment.

Jensen said all areas surveyed in The Pines exceed the natural background level for radiation.

"There's something that's not normal," Jensen said.

Jensen said he is unaware of any unexplained or radiation-related health problems suffered by any of the town's 780 residents.

"It's more in the level where you have long-term consequences," Jensen said. "Some of the levels were over the levels where the EPA would excavate and take things away. The potential is there but the data is not there to make that determination."

Jensen stressed that additional lab work is needed to make a full, scientific analysis.

Jensen and Kysel said they asked the EPA to conduct its own study to dispute or confirm their findings, but the agency declined.

"We're asking some agency to come out, verify our data and do lab analysis we can't afford and determine what health hazards may exist," Jensen said.

Eugene Jablonowski, health physicist for the U.S. EPA, said the methodology used in the PINES group study is not consistent with current EPA standards.

"The EPA did meet with Mr. Jensen," Jablonowski said. "There were numerous discussions at the tie and we responded we did not see any justification at that time."

Matthew Ohl, remedial project manager for the EPA, agreed there is no need for further review.

"The data I'm seeing here, Larry, doesn't justify it," Ohl said.

Longtime region environmentalist Charlotte Read moved for the NIRPC environmental committee to draft a letter to the EPA asking for a formal study. The letter would proceed to the full NIRPC board and would require that group's approval before being forwarded to the EPA.

"Everyone has basically ignored them for years," Read said. "It's just a story of a small group of people who care, did their own study, raised a lot of money," Read said. "It's time to take the next step. This community has suffered long enough."

Kay Nelson, environmental director for the Northwest Indiana Forum, cautioned against the move.

"For us to make a recommendation for the EPA to do something, we have to take that very seriously," Nelson said. "I know our municipalities spend millions of dollars to do compliance work. You want to send a letter to EPA to say spend an extra $500,000 to do this work?"

Nicole Barker, executive director of Save the Dunes, supported the move.

"It would really provide us with a great level of comfort to have you come out and do an analysis," she said.

The committee agreed by a margin of 5-4 to draft a letter for the full NIRPC board to consider. That letter will be reviewed at a Dec. 6 meeting.

The NIRPC board is scheduled to meet Dec. 13.

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