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George Lake dead swans point to larger issue of Region's unchecked pollution, residents say
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George Lake dead swans point to larger issue of Region's unchecked pollution, residents say

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HAMMOND — While the death of several swans on George Lake sounded the alarm for a more thorough investigation into pollution sources in the area, the discovery also sheds light on the bigger issue of unchecked industry in the Robertsdale neighborhood, where EPA is excavating lead-contaminated yards, according to residents.

“If not for the dead swans, we probably wouldn’t be here right now," Bob Lukacsek, of the Robertsdale neighborhood, said at a community meeting Tuesday night at Calumet College of St. Joseph.

"Come springtime, a lot of people will be in that north basin. People will be on kayaks, walking, wading, fishing, and I think it’s important … we don’t want to see people out in that area.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last spring began a $1.7 million cleanup of lead-contaminated soil from 28 residential properties in Robertsdale, but targeting only the most contaminated properties occupied by sensitive populations such as young children or pregnant women.

Three more properties are anticipated to be cleaned up this spring. Other properties in the neighborhood have elevated lead levels in the soil, but its unclear if those yards will be cleaned.

It appears EPA has been unable to secure funding for the rest of the cleanup.

In December, the agency sent a newsletter to residents affected by Superfund site cleanup activities, stating it continues to coordinate with state and local entities to explore ways to secure legal authority and finance cleanup of the remaining properties.

Of the financial restraints, Hammond Department of Environmental Management Director Ron Novak said: “You’re talking about the state and federal governments trying to find financial resources."

'It's the norm, and it shouldn't be'

Families living just outside the EPA's boundaries for the neighborhood cleanup expressed worry that they, too, may have elevated lead levels in their backyards. 

Marisa Rowden, of Whiting, said her two children were tested for lead when it was offered for free in the early 1990s. The city or state should continuously offer that, she said, given the city’s history with elevated blood lead levels.

She lives just four blocks north of the designated cleanup area, she said. 

Children are particularly at risk when exposed to lead, because their bodies are growing quickly. Children also tend to put their hands to their mouths more often, increasing exposure risk. Even at low doses, lead can cause behavioral problems and irreversible learning disabilities.

Robertsdale's Lukacsek said he and his family have maintained a community garden for 30 years just three houses away from George Lake, and that he would like the city to test his properties. He was among several people who signed consent forms after the Tuesday meeting, allowing the city to test their yards for lead. 

“I would like to know if it’s contaminated,” he said.

Rowden and others have announced a new local environmental community group, SWAN — or, Saving Whiting and Neighbors — focused on the health of residents and wildlife in the area and advocating at all levels of government for change.

SWAN’s first meeting is 3 to 5 p.m. Jan. 26 at the Whiting Family YMCA, 1938 Clark St., in Whiting.

“Local, state and federal governments need to hold these companies accountable. What have we been exposed to? In Northwest Indiana, we’ve grown accustomed to it. It’s the norm, and it shouldn’t be,” Rowden said.

City releases more data

City leaders said Tuesday they plan to test more areas surrounding the former Federated Metals facility, and collect water and sediment samples from nearby George Lake, the site where at least 30 swans — including six with elevated lead levels in their kidneys — have been found dead since late September.

The Hammond Department of Environmental Management released a second round of soil-sample results at Tuesday's meeting. 

The data showed lead contamination levels trending upward along the bike path on the northwest side of George Lake as HDEM sampled closer to the former smelter site now operated by Whiting Metals.

The city tested the soil using a handheld X-ray device — recently purchased for $32,000 — by digging 2 inches deep, according to Novak.

Generally, the 18 samples taken hovered around or were below the U.S. EPA’s cleanup threshold of 400 parts per million for residential yards.

The highest lead reading was 336 ppm, and 70 ppm for arsenic, officials said.

For comparison, EPA discovered lead levels as high as 45,000 ppm between zero to 6 inches below the surface at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, and as high as 91,100 ppm when digging 18 to 24 inches.

The discovery prompted the evacuation of more than 1,200 people in summer 2016.

“That’s not even in the same ballpark, but we’re still taking it very seriously,” Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said.

Last month, 27 2-inch soil samples were taken from George Lake's north basin and the Lost Marsh Golf Course to determine if city property contained dangerously elevated lead and arsenic levels.

In that first round of testing, two lead and two arsenic readings along the bike path on the north side of George Lake and near the former Federated Metals site were slightly above the EPA screening levels for residential areas, but well below current EPA levels requiring emergency removal action.

Theories on deaths

Today, Whiting Metals operates at the site of the former Federated Metals, 2230 Indianapolis Blvd. From 1937 to 1983, Federated Metals operated on George Lake's northeast shore as a smelting, refining, recovery and recycling facility for lead, copper and zinc.

McDermott, along with company representatives from Whiting Metals and several residents, said they believe a cap on the Federated Metals landfill is likely failing, and could be the cause of the elevated lead levels, because the vegetation has died.

The landfill was capped between 2001 and 2006 as part of a $3.35 million EPA-led cleanup of the area.

Both EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management have said the cap is working properly.

“So what’s your theory?” McDermott asked Mark Elliott, consultant for Whiting Metals with MH Environmental.

“The site’s not clean, by any stretch of the imagination,” Elliott responded.

McDermott appeared to back off a bit on his earlier theory that a Sept. 20 bag-house fire at Whiting Metals definitively caused the deaths. While the deaths are quite the anomaly, he said, it’s worth further investigating to determine what happened.

Alex Gross, managing partner at Whiting Metals, said the business wasn't operating at the time of the Sept. 20 fire. 

Residents urge HDEM to do more

EPA and IDEM in November each issued notices of violation to Whiting Metals for elevated lead emissions in the air, though Whiting Metals owner Jeffrey Condon said they are not to blame for high lead readings on monitors IDEM and EPA installed last summer just outside their plant.

EPA's excavation work in the nearby neighborhood is to blame for the high lead readings, Condon said.

“Please come to our office. We’d love to give you the data,” Condon offered to the city and residents. “On days we are operating, there are virtually no readings.”

Carolyn Marsh, an avid birdwatcher and environmentalist, said the death of more than 30 swans, while unusual, points to a bigger issue of unchecked water, air and soil pollution in the Region.

“So what is important about finding lead in the swans. That’s important, that they have lead in the kidneys … That’s telling us something,” Marsh said.

After Marsh criticized HDEM for not doing enough to keep a check on the big industry in Hammond, Novak and McDermott said they are stepping up with comprehensive testing of water and sediments on the lake.

That testing may help the city pinpoint what happened to the swans, and, more generally, sources of lead contamination in the area, Novak said.

“We’re going to try to get on every property that we can, No. 1, to get soil samples … And continuously keep on IDEM and U.S. EPA to make sure that if there are elevated lead levels in the air, then that source be identified and stopped, and brought into compliance.”

Dave Woronecki-Ellis, with the Sierra Club’s Dunelands Group, said they share Hammond residents’ concerns regarding heavy metal contamination in the lake and surrounding area.

“We urge community leaders for a continued, thorough investigation into the source of the heavy metal contamination and for a just resolution that includes both necessary cleanup and identifying the responsible party so that Hammond residents, both human and animal, can enjoy the natural beauty of Hammond in good health,” Woroneck-Ellis said.

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North Lake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting from UIS. Contact her at lauren.cross@nwi.com or 219-933-3206.

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