Gary/Chicago International Airport's runway expansion is intended to turn the airport into Northwest Indiana's economic engine. As the project nears completion, however, the escalating cost threatens to pollute the airport's future prospects.
All polluted soil dug up during the runway expansion project was supposed to be hauled away. That was one of the selling points of the project -- to turn more land at the airport into space that could be developed to generate additional economic activity.
But that might not happen yet. A toxic mound of oil-saturated dirt might remain at the property. Airport officials chose to pile it at the south end of the polluted site.
Expansion project manager Scott Wheeler said "the volume of material found was more significant than anyone thought."
Gary Jet Center owner Wil Davis is justifiably upset. Leaving that pollution in place will deter development.
Cleaning it up is a bigger priority to Davis than the runway extension.
The pile of tainted soil is not a pretty sight. It is as big as the airport's largest hangar.
Airport officials want environmental regulators to give their blessing to turn that pile into a berm, cap it with clay and plant grass on it, at least temporarily.
"There is potential for development down there," airport director Steve Landry said. "But we know there won't be any development done here if the runway is not extended."
The airport must do both -- extend the runway as promised, and remove the tainted soil, as promised.
Leaving a toxic pile of dirt at Gary/Chicago International Airport defeats the whole point of the airport expansion, which is to generate the potential for additional economy activity there. Toxic areas have to be cleaned up so the airport will become the economic engine it should be.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should insist on properly disposing of the contaminated soil so development can occur.
The cost of this project has already escalated from the original $90 million estimate to $166 million. Do it right.