HAMMOND — City officials said Monday a fire last fall at Whiting Metals may be to blame for elevated lead levels found in dead mute swans, but a company official and a local environmental activist called the theory "absurd."

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said he directed the Hammond Department of Environmental Management to begin using recently purchased technology to test the area around the Lost Marsh Golf Course for "the presence of abnormal amounts of lead in the soil."

"This type of incident is obviously unusual, and we think the high lead levels found in the swan carcasses came from a recent fire at Whiting Metals on Sept. 20," a news release stated. "That fire started in the baghouse and had to be put out by Hammond firefighters, resulting in the escape of lead particles meant to be captured in Whiting Metals' baghouse."

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

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required Whiting Metals to test for lead for two days after the fire and nothing was found, Gross said.

"To try to blame us for something like this is absurd," he said.

When there is a fire in a baghouse, the lead "simply falls down into the tray and it gets collected," he said. "There is very little lead in the dust."

David Dabertin, a local attorney who lives in the area, said it's unfortunate that swans are dying, but the focus should be on the people who live in the Robertsdale neighborhood and are being exposed to high lead levels in the air.

Data posted on IDEM's Air Quality web page show lead emissions in the area were elevated Sept. 20, but were even higher on various days before and after the fire. The data runs from Aug. 3 to Oct. 19.

"I'm unhappy to see people so upset about swans, when we have clear data that people are being exposed to lead in this neighborhood," Dabertin said. "These numbers are outrageous. This is horrible."

Bob Lukacsek, a Hammond resident, said he saw seven additional dead swans between the Lost Marsh Golf Course and the north side of George Lake on Sunday afternoon. He's seen at least 30 dead swans in the area since September, he said.

"If all this wildlife is dying, somebody probably needs to take a look at the sediments in the lake," he said.

IDEM: Lead levels still above standard

Ronald Novak, executive director of the Hammond Department of Environmental Management, said his office received the first complaint about dead swans in October and referred the matter to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Novak said he saw the cloud of smoke from the Sept. 20 fire, and it traveled in a straight line from Whiting Metals over the north basin of George Lake where the birds have been dying.

When there is a fire in a baghouse, the lead inside goes up with the heat of the fire and into the air, Novak said.

Lead can contribute to irreversible behavioral problems and learning disabilities in children. It also can adversely affect the nervous system, kidney function, immune system, reproductive and developmental systems and the cardiovascular system.

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

EPA last spring began a $1.7 million cleanup after finding elevated lead levels in the nearby Robertsdale neighborhood, which includes homes in Hammond and Whiting.

EPA completed excavation of lead-contaminated soil at 28 properties this year and plans to clean three more next spring. The agency conducted air monitoring and used dust-suppression efforts to prevent the spread of lead through the air during its work, a spokeswoman said.

IDEM has no information linking Whiting Metals to the death of the swans, a spokesman said Monday.

When asked if it was investigating, IDEM last week cited a letter of violation it recently sent to Whiting Metals due to elevated lead emissions. The department on Monday clarified that it was simply pointing out its staff members are monitoring lead levels in the area.

"IDEM lead monitors, which measure lead concentrations in the ambient air, continue to show readings above the lead standard on an intermittent basis," the department said. "As previously stated, IDEM and EPA have each issued notices of violation, alleging that Whiting Metals is contributing to these high readings at the monitor."

Agencies still gathering information

The letters of violation give Whiting Metals an opportunity to meet with regulators to reach a settlement and avoid a potential lawsuit filed by the government.

IDEM and EPA staff met with representatives of Whiting Metals on Dec. 3, an IDEM spokesman said.

"We continue to investigate and gather additional information from the company," he said.

Dabertin also said the theory the Sept. 20 fire at Whiting Metals caused swan deaths "borders on the absurd." 

It's not uncommon for waterfowl to suffer from lead poisoning, partly because of the historical use of lead bullets to hunt them. Lead also must build up in an animal's system before it results in death, which means the swans theoretically could have ingested lead in another area — such as Wolf Lake — but not died until arriving at George Lake, he said.

Dabertin said he submitted a records request for a copy of a Hammond Fire Department's reports on the fire, which indicated firefighters were instructed they had been exposed to lead and should "wash up ASAP and wash our bunkers."

Dabertin said if the fire emitted that much lead, the city should have warned residents of the possible danger. 

"They never told any human beings, and now they're worried about swans?" he said.

The cause of death for six swans tested by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources could not be determined because of decomposition of the bodies, IDEM said. The birds had elevated lead levels in their kidneys, some to toxic levels, according to an email shared with The Times by a local birdwatcher.

Residents should not pick up any dead animals, IDEM said. Instead, notify local animal control for proper disposal of carcasses.

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