HAMMOND — The Indiana Department of Environmental Management plans to test this year for lead in soil in a residential area near a Hessville lead oxide plant, after recently approving the company's application to modify its air permit.

Executives at Hammond Group Inc. said they weren't aware of IDEM's plan to test off-site soil.

Hammond Group CEO and President Terrence Murphy said the company is environmentally conscious. It manufactures lead oxides and additives for lead acid batteries, which are recycled more than 99 percent of the time, he said.

"We're extending the life, we're extending the capability of what lead acid batteries were thought to do," Murphy said.

Hammond Group has been working to make lead acid batteries that can meet emerging demands, including use in hybrid cars and storage of wind and solar energy. Most hybrid cars currently use lithium ion batteries, which cannot be recycled, he said.

Hammond Group, formerly known as Hammond Lead, historically has produced lead oxides and additives at the facility off 165th Street. Production at the 165th Street facility shifted solely to lead oxides after the company renovated another facility at 3100 Michigan St. several years ago by adding new laboratories and moving production of all additives there.

The facility on 165th Street has had baghouses since operations began in the 1930s, executives said. The company began further filtering emissions from baghouses using HEPA filters in the 1980s.

The facility is a closed environment, where trucks that exclusively haul lead oxide are loaded in a sealed environment. The facility's emissions in recent years have totaled less than 1 percent of allowable limits under its permit, executives said.

IDEM cited the low levels of lead air emissions when it approved modifications to Hammond Group's air permit Dec. 8.

All known lead sites re-evaluated

Murphy said he thinks the chance IDEM will find soil contamination in the area attributable to Hammond Group is "extremely remote."

"We're the last people that want to put lead in the environment," Murphy said. "We want to put it in batteries. So we welcome any and all testing to make sure that it's not there."

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IDEM said it identified the facility for investigation as part of a statewide re-evaluation that began in 2015 of all known lead sites. The statewide re-evaluation was imposed by the department's former commissioner, a spokesman said. IDEM employees re-evaluated active and closed sites.

A 1985 inspection report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency discussed four areas, including the then-Hammond Lead facility on 165th Street. Other sites evaluated included the Federated Metals facility in the Robertsdale neighborhood of Hammond and Whiting, the USS Lead facility in East Chicago and an area near the Whiting refinery and former LTV Steel plant.

EPA is currently seeking residents' permission to test soil for lead in a designated area near the former Federated Metals site, and an environmental cleanup at the USS Lead site began in 2016.

The 1985 report said one sample point in the vicinity of Hammond Lead tested at 2,900 parts per million. Other samples ranged from 30 ppm to 630 ppm. EPA is cleaning up properties in the USS Lead Superfund site — about 2 miles from the Hammond Group facility off 165th Street — that test at 400 ppm or more.

Hammond Group executives said the company has never been asked by state or federal officials to clean up for lead. A trucking yard to the north of the facility, where trucks contracted by Hammond Lead were loaded, was cleaned up in the 1980s, according to company executives and a Hammond official.

IDEM to test north, northeast of plant

Hammond Group has been a leader in emissions-control technology, said Ronald Novak, executive director of the Hammond Department of Environmental Management. 

"There's just a history," Novak said. "Do I suspect that there's a problem out there? It's sort of a cautious no. ... Where the bells and whistles go off is residential."

There's been an increased awareness of how lead, a neurotoxin, can adversely affect people, especially children, in recent years, he said.

IDEM staff have identified a large residential area to the north and northeast of the Hammond Lead facility where it will test soil, a department spokesman said. Prevailing winds in the area would likely carry contaminants in the direction of the area identified, a spokesman said.

IDEM plans to screen surface soils using an X-ray fluorescent instrument, predominantly in city rights-of-way in residential areas.

The department has made no determinations yet, a spokesman said. A site reassessment report will be released after the screening inspection is complete.

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