The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is touting the full and partial removal of 27 Superfund sites from a list tracking the nation’s most contaminated sites as Trump administration victories despite decades of cleanup, persisting contamination threats and concerns expressed by local authorities.
The EPA fully deleted 14 Superfund sites and partially deleted 13 sites, including three in Indiana, from the National Priorities List.
The Douglas Road/Uniroyal, Inc. Landfill in Mishawaka, the Fort Wayne Reduction Dump and the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago were partially deleted from the NPL, but some environmental threats remain at those sites.
The deletions mean specific conditions for cleanup set at the time the sites were added to the NPL have been fully or partially met.
Partial deletions allow developers or investors to make money off the delisted portions of a site even as cleanup of toxic substances continues at other parts of a site.
“Cleaning up these Superfund sites brings real environmental benefits to places that have suffered environmental degradation while also helping move them forward,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “Once the land has been cleaned up of historical pollutants, the sites can be repurposed and reused in ways that create jobs and enhance the health of entire communities. We’re proud of the progress we’ve made, and there is still more work to do.”
The Trump administration has prioritized deleting Superfund sites from the NPL, pursuing a historic rate of deletions while claiming them as environmental victories for the administration.
In the first year of the Trump administration the EPA deleted two sites from the NPL and partially deleted four. The EPA then deleted 18 full sites and four partial sites in 2018. In 2019, EPA deleted 12 full sites and 15 partial sites.
The deletions are the culmination of decades worth of cleanup spanning multiple presidential administrations. The deletion of the Indiana sites does not mean the threat of contamination is over.
DOUGLAS ROAD/UNIROYAL, INC. LANDFILL – MISHAWAKA
The partial deletion of the Douglas Road/Uniroyal Inc. landfill in Mishawaka could leave several types of contamination behind, a fact that has led local officials to voice their concerns.
The site is located south of Interstate 80, between apartment complexes and shopping centers near W. Douglas Rd. and Grape Rd.
Mishawaka Mayor David A. Wood submitted comments to the EPA in July, telling the NPL deletion coordinator he was concerned about methane emissions building up in landfill gas vent wells.
“The single major issue that appears to be problematic is the presence of methane gas in a few landfill gas vent wells, specifically vent wells LG-4, LG-6, LG-7 and LG-13,” Woods wrote. “We consider this situation as imminently hazardous to the safety of the public and are requesting that the vent wells be restored, operated and maintained in perpetuity or until the issue is truly remedied.”
Woods also expressed concerns about coal ash contamination at the site, which may have led to elevated levels of arsenic, iron and lead in groundwater monitoring wells.
Those concerns remain, even as the site is deleted from the National Priorities List.
The site was formerly a gravel pit that was later used as a repository for waste from the Uniroyal Plastics, Inc. plant between 1954 and 1979.
The company dumped more than 302,000 gallons of toxic solvents like methyl ethyl ketone, toluene, acetone and hexane, along with dozens of tons of paper, wood stock, rubber and plastic scrap at the landfill for nearly 20 years.
Groundwater contamination was found in 1971, and the Indiana State Board of Health ordered the site closed.
Between 1971 and 1979, the company used the landfill exclusively for coal ash, dumping more than 79,000 tons of fly ash over the years.
Coal ash is toxic waste created by burning coal. It can contain mercury, lead, arsenic and many other metals and elements that could cause cancer, lung and heart problems or death. Fly ash is coal ash ground to a fine powder.
The site was first added to the National Priorities List in 1989. That year, the state of Indiana and Uniroyal, Inc. signed a consent decree wherein the company agreed to perform a remedial investigation and a cleanup feasibility study, but the company filed for bankruptcy in 1991 and would not fulfill its contractual obligations.
In 1994, EPA investigators found a carcinogenic volatile organic compound known as vinyl chloride in six residential wells at levels seven times the amount required for the agency to take action to remove the compound.
Investigators found that groundwater under the landfill was discharging into the nearby Juday Creek, placing about 50 homes at risk for potential contamination.
By 1996, the EPA and the state of Indiana agreed on a plan to address the contamination. The site was split into two 16-acre operating units, OU1 and OU2. About 2,200 cubic yards of contaminated soil was excavated at OU1, and the area was capped. The remedy at OU2 was more complicated, with the plan calling for the installation of five groundwater extraction wells, wetlands and a filter strip to treat wetland effluent.
In 2018, the site was purchased by a Wyoming-based Greener Investment Holdings LLC, which entered into discussions with the EPA in 2019 about its potential future use.
The cleanup plan eventually reduced contamination at the site, although vinyl chloride and arsenic are still being detected at the site.
By May 2020, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the EPA agreed that the 1996 cleanup agreement objectives for OU1 had been met, and the EPA began the process for partial NPL deletion the following month.
The EPA told Wood that IDEM would continue to monitor the methane until “it is no longer a threat.” The EPA also said that contamination affecting groundwater at the site was due to the OU2, which is not being deleted from the priorities list.
The partial deletion was finalized Sept. 30. OU2 will remain on the National Priorities List until groundwater meets federal and state maximum contaminant levels for arsenic and other contaminants.
FORT WAYNE REDUCTION DUMP – FORT WAYNE
The Fort Wayne Reduction Dump was formerly farmland that was turned into a landfill in 1967. The dump accepted residential and industrial waste between 1967 and 1976.
The dump’s owners, Fort Wayne Reduction, Inc., kept few records of the types of waste accepted at the site, but what is known is that waste was processed in incinerators at the site until 1970. The ashes that remained were disposed of on-site.
In 1970, the company changed its name to National Recycling Corp. and dabbled in recycling, building a recycling plant that was active for about five years. The company’s main operation was the solid waste landfill that accepted industrial and municipal waste, industrial liquids and sludge.
According to the EPA, the company began collecting barrels of liquid waste and dug a 40-foot-by-60-foot pit for storage of the liquids.
Drums containing chemicals of all types were brought to the dump, including some the ISBH categorized as volatile, chemical or hazardous wastes. The drum lids would be cut off and the contents dumped into the pit, creating a pool of toxic liquids.
A later EPA analysis found that the landfill had accepted more than 141,000 gallons of volatile industrial liquids, toxic 2,4-dimethyl phenol, methylene chloride, arsenic and toxic sludge.
The site was added to the NPL in 1986, and the EPA said there was no evidence of contamination or contamination threat to the nearby River Haven community, although there was evidence of contaminants migrating into the Maumee River through groundwater discharge.
The EPA and IDEM agreed to clean up the 35-acre site by digging up and incinerating tens of thousands of chemical-filled drums from the site and capping the entire landfill area, known as OU1 and OU2.
OU1 and OU2, the two landfill areas, have met the cleanup objectives put in place in 1986 and were deleted from the NPL on Sept. 30. OU3, the groundwater portion of the site, has not been determined to meet final cleanup goals.
Capping at the site does not eliminate contamination. It only prevents the contamination from spreading as long as the cap holds.
Caps at the site were installed in 1991 and 1994 and are approaching 30 years of use. The EPA has said that in-situ caps like these are “conceptually built to last forever,” but, the agency does not have data on how low-probability events, like a 500-year storm, could affect them.
The Fort Wayne Reduction Dump is located within the 100-year floodplain of the Maumee River.
Climate change has made once-rare severe weather events much more likely to happen.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the dump was one of 25 Superfund sites in Indiana that face the highest flood risk.
Average annual precipitation in the Fort Wayne area is rising, and the risk of contamination at the dump spreading continues.
U.S. SMELTER AND LEAD REFINERY, INC. SITE – EAST CHICAGO
The U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery, Inc. site housed a lead refining facility from 1920 to 1972 and later became a secondary lead smelter until 1985.
The EPA has found evidence of toxic and persistent heavy metals, lead, lead slag and other chemicals permeating soil and spilling into surface and ground water at and around the U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery, Inc. facility since the early 1980s.
According to EPA investigators, workers at the facility appeared to “casually” haul large amounts of lead flue dust in front end loaders from five 6,000-ton piles, resulting in large amounts of the dust spilling into the facility grounds or being carried off by the wind.
Soil samples taken at the facility were found to contain as much as 16% lead, and a chemical analysis found lead flowing from the plant at 3,400 parts per billion, or hundreds of times the amount needed for environmental and health authorities to take action.
The investigators concluded that the local population was being exposed to contamination through the flue dust and lead pollution from the facility entering drainage ditches and moving into the Grand Calumet River.
The facility stopped operating in December 1985, but the pollution threat continued. EPA inspectors in March 1986 found the facility in a “state of complete despair," with the facility’s manager telling the inspectors that disposal of a toxic pile of lead flue dust was “impossible because the company was bankrupt.”
Eventually, only a single employee, the company’s bookkeeper, was left at the site. He told IDEM inspectors that all utility services were stopped at the facility due to nonpayment and that people started breaking in to the facility to steal equipment and recyclable metals.
IDEM eventually took legal action against the company, forcing it to pay a $55,000 fine, create a closure plan and take other actions to prevent pollution.
In 1992, the EPA first proposed adding the facility to the National Priorities List. As part of the process the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry prepared a health assessment report in 1994, finding that lead and other contamination was present at least a half mile from the site and in surface water and sediments.
The report also revealed that the state of Indiana had indications people living near the area may have been exposed to lead contamination for years.
The Indiana State Board of Health conducted lead screening for 53 children in East Chicago in 1985, finding that two of the children had “moderately increased blood lead levels” that could not be explained.
The ISDH in 1996 asked the disease registry to help it conduct a lead exposure investigation, singling out areas near the USS Lead site.
“After a review of the EPA 1985 off-site soil lead concentrations, the ISDH and ATSDR determined that the West Calumet and Calumet communities are the populations at greatest risk to exposure to elevated lead levels,” the health department said in a report.
The agencies held free blood lead screenings for people living in the area for two days. They tested 95 people, including 30 children. Ten of those children had elevated blood levels.
The agencies concluded the children were exposed to lead contamination either through lead-based paint or lead-contaminated soil. ISDH recommended conducting follow up investigations.
The sites now occupied by the school and the West Calumet Housing Complex were identified by the EPA as the former site of several separate lead smelting operations, the International Lead Refining Plant, owned by a subsidiary of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, and a white lead unit owned by the Eagle-Picher Co.
The Times of Northwest Indiana found the former Anaconda site was sold to the School City of East Chicago in 1956, and the properties that eventually became the West Calumet Housing Complex were acquired by the East Chicago Housing Authority in 1970. The Anaconda lead factory building were demolished that same year.
IDEM tested surface soil at the school and the West Calumet Housing Complex July 1997 after the EPA noticed ongoing construction at the school. One of five soil samples from the school had lead levels above 400 parts per million. A second batch of samples confirmed the finding. Neither of two samples collected from the housing complex showed “levels of concern.”
An independent study commissioned by U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery, Inc. concluded that the company’s air emissions likely did impact surrounding soil, but to a much lesser degree than other facilities in the area.
Instead of being added to the National Priorities List, the USS Lead facility was designated a Corrective Action Management Unit two years after the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry report. The designation allowed the EPA to clean up the facility and store contaminants onsite and monitor it for 30 years.
In 2008, the EPA found that 11 homes had lead levels above 1,200 parts per million, the EPA’s regulatory removal action level. Over time, the EPA found more contamination in nearby homes.
The USS Lead site was added to the NPL in 2009, and the EPA began to investigate the extent of the lead contamination. More properties were found to be contaminated, and the EPA and IDEM decided on a cleanup plan for the site in 2012.
The EPA would excavate soil from contaminated properties and replace it with clean fill. Efforts continued over years, and more residences were found to have contamination.
In 2016, the West Calumet Housing Complex in Zone 1 of OU1 was found to have lead contamination, with some samples from nearby yards showing lead levels over 70 times the U.S. safety standard. Blood samples from children living in the area showed high blood lead levels.
The apartment complex was closed and demolished, and more than 1,000 residents were forced to find new housing.
The former site of the housing complex is still on the NPL, but local authorities and the EPA are planning on Zone 1’s future.
East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland sold the 49-acre site to a company that plans to develop the site into a logistics and distribution campus and warehousing complex.
The East Chicago city council rezoned the site from residential to light industrial use in hopes of a future removal from the NPL.
The EPA deleted 671 residences in Zones 2 and 3 from the NPL on Sept. 30, saying the properties were cleaned up to standards set in 2012. The agency said the soil at the properties “poses no unacceptable risk to human health and the environment.”
The deletion allows the city to redevelop vacant lots.
It’s unclear whether the East Chicago city government will move to rezone the recently deleted properties.