HAMMOND — The Indiana Department of Environmental Management last week approved an air permit for a lead reclamation business operating at the site of a former smelter where EPA is investigating off-site contamination.
IDEM never scheduled a public hearing or meeting on the permit for Whiting Metals, despite requests from the Hammond City Council and residents.
Whiting Metals reclaims and blends lead and solder from scrap, records show. Its 10-year permit was renewed Dec. 22.
The company operates on part of the former Federated Metals site at 2230 Indianapolis Blvd., where remediation plans started in 1992 under the Environmental Protection Agency's Resource Conservation and Recover Act program.
A 10-acre landfill on the shore of Lake George was capped in 2005 as part of a six-year, $3.35 million RCRA cleanup. The site also includes the 9-acre former smelter.
EPA began sampling at city-owned properties in November 2016 near the former Federated Metals site to determine if heavy metals from the plant might have contaminated nearby residential areas. More sampling was conducted in March.
EPA sampled the landfill in May, and analysis showed a link between materials in the landfill and materials in soils to the north of the plant.
Residential testing area ID'd
The federal agency has now designated a soil sampling area north of Lake George Trail and south of Community Court and Fischrupp Avenue. The sampling area includes a stretch of Indianapolis Boulevard, the Whiting Family YMCA, St. Mary's Byzantine Catholic Church and St. Adalbert Catholic Church.
"Letters were sent to all residents in the defined area from the respective cities encouraging the property owners to allow EPA to sample their property," an EPA spokeswoman said. "Further outreach efforts will be determined after data is evaluated from the initial sampling effort."
The site was referred to EPA's removal program by the remediation and reuse branch chief of EPA Region 5's Land and Chemicals Division, according to IDEM.
David Dabertin, an attorney and Hammond resident, had submitted public comments raising questions about whether a prior permit was legally transferred to Whiting Metals. He also had urged IDEM to delay a decision on the air permit until after the full extent of off-site soil contamination has been determined.
Dabertin on Wednesday slammed IDEM's decision to issue the permit and criticized the department's decision to refer back to letters its former director wrote in 2014 and 2015 in response to his recent comments.
"I think the issuance of a lead permit in an area where lead may be an issue without obtaining the test results is foolish and bordering on the negligent," he said. "The refusal to hold a public hearing is plain cowardice. And IDEM's attempt to address my concerns about the prior ownership of the facility by relying on the unintelligible correspondence of its prior director is so nonresponsive it is insulting."
IDEM's responses to public comments were included in the Dec. 22 final permit approval. In the document, IDEM said it eliminated all references to zinc in the permit, because Whiting Metals told the department it no longer engages in that business.
IDEM said it decided not to conduct a public hearing because there were "few changes contained in the renewal permit," "substantive permit changes will decrease actual emissions" and "extensive information was provided" in the permit application and in the final approval document.
Mayor: Nothing 'really scary' found so far
In response to Dabertin's comment about soil sampling, IDEM said it doesn't regulate zoning, listed a number to report environmental emergencies and said it operates eight lead-monitoring sites in Northwest Indiana — the closest of which is about 3 miles from Whiting Metals.
The department responded to Dabertin's questions about ownership of the property by reiterating two letters former IDEM Commissioner Thomas Easterly sent to Dabertin in 2014 and 2015.
Whiting Metals took over the existing permit as a transfer from the previous owner, IDEM said.
IDEM said it "previously provided adequate response to Mr. Dabertin's comments related to the matter of whether proper permitting had been obtained by Whiting Metals." The department referred to a 2011 inspection, saying, "IDEM found no evidence that the equipment operated by Whiting Metals was different than the equipment operated by" a company that occupied the site before Whiting Metals.
Whiting Mayor Joseph Stahura said the levels of contamination found so far have not been "really scary" or severely above EPA's threshold.
EPA offered to conduct more extensive testing on private property and complete cleanups if contamination levels exceeded thresholds, he said.
"I don't know where you could lose on that," he said.
Ronald Novak, director of the Hammond Department of Environmental Management, said he's taken some questions from residents in the sampling area, but refers everyone back to EPA.