HAMMOND — The Indiana Department of Environmental Management responded Friday to questions about whether it was investigating dead swans on George Lake by pointing to a violation notice it recently issued to Whiting Metals.
A local birdwatcher told The Times last week he has documented 18 dead mute swans in the area since early October, including six that were found to have elevated lead levels in their kidneys.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources submitted six partially decomposed carcasses to a Purdue University laboratory, and tests revealed elevated levels of lead in the birds' kidneys. Tests for avian influenza, botulism and other toxins were negative, according to an email from a DNR official provided to The Times by Hammond birdwatcher John Madeka.
DNR said Friday the Indiana Department of Environmental Management is leading the investigation.
The Times has submitted a public records request for a necropsy report prepared for DNR.
When asked if IDEM was investigating the dead swans, a spokesman said the department has been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to monitor lead levels in the area.
Both agencies recently issued violation notices to Whiting Metals for exceeding limits for lead emissions into the air. An IDEM spokesman later clarified the agency has no evidence linking Whiting Metals to the dead birds.*
The exact cause of death of the swans could not be determined, because of the partial decomposition of the bodies. DNR noted major pathological changes were associated with parasitism, IDEM said.
For humans, 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, EPA said.
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.
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The site was subject to a $3.35 million federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act cleanup from 2001 to 2006 that involved demolition of an on-site baghouse and consolidation of debris, hazardous waste and slag dredged from George Lake into a near-shore landfill capped with vegetation.
A quarterly post-closure groundwater monitoring report filed with IDEM in November showed elevated levels of arsenic, lead and fluoride are present in groundwater at the site.
IDEM approved an air permit for Whiting Metals in December 2017 without holding a public hearing, despite requests from residents and the Hammond City Council. The approval was granted at the same time EPA was testing soil at homes in the area for lead contamination.
EPA last spring began a $1.7 million cleanup of lead-contaminated soil from homes in the nearby Robertsdale neighborhood of Hammond and Whiting. The cleanup has targeted only the most contaminated properties also occupied by sensitive populations such as children or pregnant women.
Numerous other properties in the neighborhood have elevated lead levels in the soil, but it remains unclear if those yards will be cleaned.
EPA said it has not been asked to assist with the investigation of dead birds.
The agency said it monitors lead levels in the air and used dust-suppression efforts to prevent the spread of lead through the air during its excavation activities. Digging has stopped for the winter.
IDEM and EPA on Nov. 8 issued notices of violation to Whiting Metals.
IDEM's notice provides Whiting Metals with an opportunity to enter into an agreed order within 60 days to correct actions that led to violations and possibly pay a civil penalty.
EPA's notice gives Whiting Metals 10 days to request a settlement conference. It was unclear late Friday if Whiting Metals had submitted such a request.
* Editor's note: This story has been updated because of information IDEM provided after press time clarifying it has no evidence linking Whiting Metals to dead swans. The department said it was simply pointing out it has been monitoring lead levels in the Robertsdale neighborhood.