HAMMOND — A company that reclaims lead and zinc from scrap metal has asked the state to renew an air pollution permit for a Robertsdale facility. It is the same facility where the U.S. EPA oversaw a yearslong environmental cleanup and recently began testing soil to determine if metals from the factory contaminated nearby residential properties.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management said it will accept public comment until May 15 on Whiting Metals' application for renewal of a 10-year permit. A public hearing may be requested, according to a draft permit.

Whiting Metals operates at the site of the former Federated Metals facility, 2230 Indianapolis Blvd. in Hammond, which includes a 9-acre former smelter and 10-acre landfill near the shore of Lake George. Homes in Hammond and Whiting stand just east and north of the property, and Calumet College of St. Joseph is to the south.

The Environmental Protection Agency said it sampled soil in December and March at 32 city-owned parcels and three private residential properties in Whiting and Hammond.

"EPA has not yet determined the nature and extent of contamination or whether a cleanup is warranted," the federal agency said.

EPA is evaluating whether metals from the factory site contaminated residential areas. The federal agency said it is investigating potentially liable parties and declined to comment further on ownership of the property at 2230 Indianapolis Blvd.

IDEM said it was notified EPA was sampling soil "out of caution," and EPA may conduct more testing.

Federated Metals operated at the site from 1937 to 1983 as a smelting, refining, recovery and recycling facility for metals such as lead, copper and zinc, according to EPA. The site was subject to a $3.35 million federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act from 2001 to 2006 that involved demolition of an on-site baghouse and consolidation of debris, hazardous waste and slag dredged from Lake George into a landfill capped with vegetation.

Federated Metals' parent company, ASARCO, declared bankruptcy in December 2015, abandoning the site before the RCRA corrective action was completed, records show. A federal bankruptcy court allocated $1.2 million to a trustee to complete the cleanup. 

About $500,000 of that money has been spent to install groundwater monitoring wells, conduct groundwater monitoring and develop plans for replanting and revegetating the landfill cover, according to EPA's webpage for the site. RCRA tasks remaining include installing off-site groundwater monitoring wells and sampling to ensure the landfill cap is successfully performing, the agency said. 

Soil sampling underway

Officials in Hammond and Whiting said EPA Region 5 first sought their permission to test soil in the area of the former Federated Metals site last year, after its slow responses in Flint, Michigan, and East Chicago were widely criticized.

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"It's probably a very good time to review other potential problems in the country," Whiting Mayor Joseph Stahura said. "I give them credit for doing that."

However, while both cities have received some preliminary sampling data from EPA, local officials want to know more before reaching any conclusions, they said.

Ronald Novak, head of Hammond's Environmental Management Department, said EPA soil sampling and the proposed renewal of Whiting Metals' air pollution permit are separate, yet related, issues.

Homes were built around factories decades ago, when workers likely didn't have vehicles to drive to work and before health concerns became an issue, he said.

"Most of the issues I have seen out there are historical in nature," he said. "In other words, they've developed over a period of time."

Stahura said it's been more than 30 years since environmental regulators first began looking at the Federated Metals site. Some of the soil samples recently taken in Whiting were on properties where old buildings were demolished and fill from other areas was brought in, he said.

"It's such a hard puzzle to say, 'OK, what's going on here?' " Stahura said. "Literally all the parkways that were tested in Whiting have been either rebuilt or retested between that time period."

A long history

Hammond's first indication that materials associated with waste products had been deposited outside the property fence at Federated Metals came in 1975 or 1976, when a concerned Whiting mother reported her son stepped in a white powdery substance while walking through the area, Novak said.

The boy tried to wash the substance off in Lake George, but it was a water-reactive compound and his ankle was burned, Novak said. Hammond referred the facility to the state, which began an investigation, he said.

After ASARCO declared bankruptcy, Hammond was notified the Federated Metals site might not receive any funds as part of a settlement, he said. Novak said the city contacted EPA, reminding the agency of Hammond's investment in a Lost Marsh brownfield project as a way to persuade the federal agency to allocate ASARCO bankruptcy money for the site.

Hammond allowed EPA to install groundwater monitoring wells, because groundwater flows to the north and northeast, Novak said. The city plans to offer comment on Whiting Metals' request to renew its air pollution permit, he said.

"It's not a large source (of air pollution). Not as large as Federated Metals," he said. "However, it is in an area and handles materials we are concerned about."