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HAMMOND — City environmental officials and the U.S. EPA want the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to refine an air pollution permit before renewing it for a lead-processing facility in Robertsdale.

Several residents say IDEM should instead reject the permit, in part, because the Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating whether the level of contamination in soil at nearby properties warrants a cleanup.

A number of parties, including the Hammond City Council, have asked IDEM to schedule a hearing on the permit for Whiting Metals, 2230 Indianapolis Blvd.

IDEM said Thursday no decision on a hearing has been made, and there is no specific timetable for its review of public comments.

“They will go through all of the comments and prepare responses to them. As they do this, they will also note any requests for a hearing or public meeting,” said Barry Sneed, a spokesman for IDEM. “A decision will be made after they have thoroughly reviewed all the comments submitted.”

IDEM records show the department’s staff plan to respond to any comments in an addendum to a technical support document in the permit.

Whiting Metals’ current 10-year air permit is scheduled to expire Aug. 10, according to records. The company submitted an application to renew the permit earlier this year.

The company reclaims lead and zinc from scrap at the former Federated Metals site, where remediation plans started in 1992 under EPA's Resource Conservation and Recover Act program. A 10-acre landfill on the shore of Lake George was capped in 2005, but a prescribed groundwater study was not initiated, a 2016 hydrogeological supplemental investigation report shows.

The 2016 report also identified plumes of arsenic, lead and fluoride under the factory property and homes to the north. EPA sampled soil in December and March at 32 city-owned parcels and three private residential properties in Whiting and Hammond, but the federal agency has not yet determined the nature and extent of contamination or whether a cleanup is warranted. 

'Folly ... is obvious'

In comments submitted to IDEM, attorney and Hammond resident David Dabertin said no additional source of lead should be allowed in the area surrounding Whiting Metals until the source of localized lead contamination is identified.

"While steps have been taken to contain the contamination on the former Federated property, nothing has been done to address any potential contaminiation of property located outside of Federated's original boundaries," Dabertin wrote.

"Because the former Federated Metals facility was never properly remediated, there is more than speculative concern" the neighborhood surrounding the property is contaminated with lead, he said.

"The folly of permitting a lead source in a neighborhood that may already be contaminated with lead is obvious," Dabertin wrote. "IDEM should delay the issuance of Whiting Metals' permit until the full extent of lead contamination is determined. Until it can be proved that any contamination is historical and not the result of any current source (including Whiting Metals) IDEM should curtail any further lead emissions in this area."

If IDEM allows Whiting Metals to continue to operate, the state should require the company to install air monitors to sample the concentration of lead in the air, Dabertin said.

Dabertin also questioned whether Whiting Metals is a legal successor to the company to which IDEM originally issued the air permit in 2009.

Officials in Hammond and Whiting have told The Times they want more soil sampling outside the plant to be conducted. The possible soil contamination and Whiting Metals' permit request are separate, but related, issues, said Ronald Novak, head of the Hammond Environmental Management Department.

"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."

HDEM submitted comments asking IDEM to require Whiting Metals to melt only clean scrap or, in the alternative, accurately account for emissions created by burning plastic, rubber and other materials; ensure, test and document that equipment used to control emissions is properly sized, operated and maintained; conduct tests to accurately determine the quantity of particulate and volatile organic compound emissions from the facility; and verify and accurately inventory all sources of emissions.

EPA also submitted comments, asking IDEM to require Whiting Metals to verify quantities and sources of emissions.

Previous violation discovered

HDEM, EPA and Dabertin cited several IDEM inspection reports when asking the state to refine its draft air permit for Whiting Metals.

HDEM officials discovered Whiting Metals was melting rubber along with scrap after Hammond Port Authority Director Milan Kruszynski on Sept. 8, 2016, reported black smoke exiting the roof of the factory, according to a report.

Novak and another HDEM employee inspected the factory Sept. 9 and encountered dense smoke in the furnace room. The company’s owner, Bob Griffin, told them “the smoke was due to the fact there were rubber particles mixed in with the lead,” according to the report.

Griffin told inspectors the company uses compressed air to blow rubber particles from the lead, but he admitted it appeared employees didn’t remove enough of the particles, according to the report.

HDEM's comments said the city has shared photographic evidence of fugitive emissions from the facility with IDEM.

“The permittee has no equipment for treating the scrap and, therefore, can only attempt to remove the contaminants manually. Manual removal of contaminants is largely impractical, so it is believed that much of these contaminants are being charged to the kettles and furnaces," HDEM's comments said. "Since the kettles and furnaces were not designed for VOC destruction and are not equipped with afterburners, VOC emissions are likely higher than noted.”

Records also show IDEM issued a violation letter to Whiting Metals in June 2014, after an inspector on May 30, 2014, found the company was not calibrating a gauge on its dust collection system or keeping records related to recalibration of the gauge.

During the May 2014 inspection, IDEM staff also noted Whiting Metals was using a reverberatory sweat furnace listed under its zinc die cast operations to process lead alloys, according to an inspection report.

Hannah Bays, environmental manager for IDEM’s Air Quality Office Permits Branch, questioned the use of the furnace in a recent email to a Whiting Metals official. Bays wrote EPA had raised the question with IDEM.

Mark Elliott, of Whiting Metals, replied the furnace “has not technically existed since 2009” and said almost none of the permitted capacity of 83 million pounds of zinc per year has been used because of a crash in the market, emails show.

“It is not anticipated that the reintroduction of (the furnace) will ever be necessary, and it would be easier to just remove it from the permit going forward," Elliott wrote.

Elliott did not list the furnace, nor two of six sweat kettles and one holding kettle used in the lead-alloying process that inspectors noted had been removed from the property, among the facility's permitted units, emails show.

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Public Safety Reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.