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HAMMOND — More than a dozen mute swans have been found dead around George Lake since October, including six with elevated lead levels, a local birdwatcher said.*

John Madeka, of Hammond, said he's been watching migrating birds on the lake for 40 years and has never seen the number of dead birds he's now seeing.

"It's just awful," he said. "It's just plain awful."

Madeka said he was approached in early October by a man on the bicycle path near the lake, who asked if he had seen the dead swans. The next day, Madeka made his first grim discovery when he found a mute swan carcass.

He has now documented 18 dead mute swans, he said. 

He reached out to Humane Indiana Wildlife, which delivered some of the carcasses Madeka collected to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources lab at Purdue University in West Lafayette.

On Thursday, Madeka received an email saying DNR had discovered elevated lead levels in the kidneys of six birds, some to toxic levels. Tests for avian influenza, botulism and other toxins were negative, the email said.

Madeka provided copies of his emails, but DNR did not immediately respond to messages seeking confirmation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Indiana will be taking the lead in investigating dead swans in the area and has not requested EPA's help.

Lead is toxic to humans at any level, EPA says. Children younger than 7 are particularly vulnerable, because lead exposure can cause irreversible learning disabilities.

EPA began excavating lead-contaminated soil from residents' yards in the area last spring.

Federated Metals operated on George Lake's northeast shore from 1937 to 1983 as a smelting, refining, recovery and recycling facility for lead, copper and zinc. The site was subject to a $3.35 million federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act 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.

EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management also recently cited Whiting Metals, which currently operates at the site, for exceeding lead emissions limits.

Madeka said he's not sure if source of the lead could be from air or water, but he suspected the toxic heavy metal is lurking at the bottom of the relatively shallow north end of the lake where the swans feed.

Mute swans have longer necks than trumpeter and tundra swans, he said. They also tend to remain year-round, unlike other migrating swans.

"Because their necks are longer, they feed deeper than everyone else," he said. "Lead is a dense element. It settles deeper. ... These are resident swans. They're here the longest and feed deeper than everyone else. Those two factors are key."

He's concerned because majestic trumpeter swans, which were once endangered but have made a comeback in recent years, could also be at risk. 

Madeka compared the mute swans' deaths to an old mining practice. Coal miners used to bring a canary into their mines. If the canary stopped singing, they knew to get out because of toxins in the air.

"If these birds are dying, there's people living right next to George Lake," Madeka said. "Obviously, they're water birds, and there's something in the water."

IDEM installed a lead ambient air monitor adjacent to Whiting Metals and began sampling in August, records show. The air permit violations were discovered during a three-month period through October.

IDEM approved Whiting Metals' air permit in December 2017 without holding a public hearing, despite requests from the Hammond City Council and residents.

EPA said it completed excavation work at 28 properties this year and plans to excavation three more next spring. Digging has stopped for the winter, a spokeswoman said. 

"During excavation activities, dust suppression methods were utilized to prevent migration of lead into the air and real-time air monitoring was conducted," EPA said. 

The agency currently is authorized to excavate only the most contaminated properties: those with lead levels above 1,200 parts per million which also are occupied by sensitive populations, such as children and pregnant women. 

Numerous other properties have lead levels above EPA's residential screening level of 400 ppm, but it remains unclear if those sites will be cleaned. 

EPA said in October it was working with IDEM and the cities of Whiting and Hammond to pursue other means of addressing properties not remediated as part of its current efforts.

* Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify information about six mute swans that died near George Lake in Hammond. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Indiana Department of Environmental Management provided new information after press time. IDEM is investigating the swan deaths, DNR said. Six of the dead mute swans had elevated lead levels, but the cause of their could not be determined because of the partial decomposition of their carcasses, IDEM said.

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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.