GARY — William J. Critser may have dodged prison time for allegations he and his family’s company violated state law by dumping waste into regulated wetlands on the city’s West Side, but environmental records show the Crown Point contractor’s case didn’t end there.
Felony charges of violating state law levied against Critser and Gary Material Supply LLC fell by the wayside in 2014 when Lake County prosecutors dismissed the case for what appears to have been insufficient evidence.
Now, Indiana Department of Environmental Management officials have confirmed the agency ordered Critser — through an enforcement action years later — to remove the waste from the site at 7318 West 15th Ave. in Gary.
“Entry into the terms of the order does not constitute an admission of any violation contained herein,” a favorable disclaimer for Critser and his family’s company reads.
Under that 2017 order, GMS must remove the materials, craft a vegetation/wetland restoration plan and monitor for a period of three years on completion.
Critser’s son, William N. Crister, responded to questions on behalf of GMS. He said the company has spent more than $60,000 on engineering, consultants and permit fees to move this project forward, but the lack of permit approvals has delayed cleanup.
Multiple dumping's impact on wetlands
It was an IDEM compliance inspector during a November 2008 inspection who discovered bentonite had been deposited at GMS-owned wetland property in “a manner that violated” environmental management laws and which “created a threat to human health or the environment,” records state.
The compliance inspector also discovered the company’s lack of a permit.
An IDEM spokesperson said bentonite is a naturally occurring material that is mined, and because it expands when wet, it is often used as a drilling mud for oil and gas wells and as sealant for dams and ponds.
“In the application to IDEM to allow the material to remain in wetlands, the listed fill material was recycled construction products such as asphalt grindings, stone, gravel, clay and other earthen materials. This included bentonite,” IDEM said.
The material was placed over a period of a few years in the wetlands in amounts sufficient to destroy the wetland — by eliminating vegetation, soils and hydrology — and thus adversely affecting water in Indiana, according to IDEM. The actions destroyed aquatic habitat and degraded water quality.
William N. Crister said it would be inaccurate to describe bentonite as "some kind of hazardous or toxic material." Any suggestion otherwise would be "inaccurate and perhaps defamatory," he said.
Sam Henderson, a staff attorney with Hoosier Environmental Council, argued while it's true bentonite is nontoxic to humans in most situations, "its property of swelling upon contact with water can cause aquatic organisms to become unable to breathe oxygen.
"All that said, I think the primary issue here is the destruction of wetlands rather than the specific material used to that end. Obviously filling in a wetland is going to be fatal to the aquatic organisms therein, regardless of the material used," Henderson said.
Henderson said he believes the dumping that occurred in this case is “emblematic of longstanding disrespect for the people and environment of western Gary — as may be seen at other nearby sites from the uncovered piles of slag waste along 9th Avenue to the J-Pit and the Gary Sanitary Landfill on Colfax.
“This case also serves as a reminder of how slow and uncertain Indiana's environmental enforcement process is — even when the violations are clearly established,” Henderson said.
Accusations surfaced years ago
Gary Material Supply, through an attorney, has twice sought delays in the cleanup, due to ongoing difficulties in obtaining a permit from the Gary Storm Water Management District.
In a Nov. 29 letter to IDEM, the company sought a delay through Labor Day 2019 to complete the project as they are still waiting on approval from the city.
Court records state the affected area tied to the felony charges was estimated at 4.31 acres, of which 3.25 acres were filled in between the summer of 2008 and December 2008.
Land records show the company owns several contiguous parcels of land, including the wetland site in question, east of Cline Avenue and west of Morse Street, bordered by 9th Avenue to the north and 15th Avenue to the south.
At the time felony charges were levied against Critser, he faced a maximum three years in prison for backfilling solid waste materials into a regulated wetland area with standing water and wetland vegetation.
Witnesses told authorities the contractor had directed the area in the 7300 block of West 15th Avenue in Gary to be filled to build a road to the north end of the property in preparation for the sale of the parcel.
Critser was alleged to have stated he could not sell the property if it was a wetland.
Authorities were told trucks loaded with concrete and other solid waste materials would be dumped and then covered with soil or sand.
He also was alleged to have been told prior to the purchase of the property that the wetlands existed and he would be required to obtain a permit to fill it in.
An expert with IDEM's Wetlands and Storm Water Section reported the site to be a dune and swale wetland, a rare and ecologically important type of wetland in the state.
As part of the order entered into last year, GMS submitted a “Wetland and Buffer Restoration Plan” that outlines the removal of bentonite from the wetland and placing the waste material at a designated location on site.
The designated area is at the western border of GMS’s property, about 100 yards west of the southwest border of 7401 W. 9th Ave. in Gary.
Once the removal is complete, Critser’s company is required to maintain a minimum soil cover of 6 to 12 inches over the bentonite. IDEM also is requiring that vegetation be added and maintained to prevent disturbance and dust being generated from the bentonite.
The enforcement order — dated Aug. 23, 2017 — remains open to this day. Given the delays surrounding the project, how soon the Critser family will ultimately comply with the cleanup is unknown.