Chesterton Tribune

Echoes of past: Environmental legacy of brickyard industry prompt more questions than answers

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By PAULENE POPARAD

Should Porter town officials have waited until they had a better handle on how much it would cost to deal with on-site contamination before buying 32 acres for redevelopment?

Since the purchase happened in 2009, it’s too late now.

According to one Redevelopment Commission member, “A business decision was made. It’s done. It’s reality. We have a responsibility and a privilege to do something about it. Leaders and future leaders have a duty to move forward.”

That’s how member Trevin Fowler ended a special meeting Tuesday called to answer questions about the RDC’s purchase of the Brickyard property for $350,000.

RDC member Bruce Snyder said it’s sad that the same day Porter was awarded a new $3.9 million draw on its $19 million from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority for the Gateway project, the RDC is forced to defend itself.

Added Fowler, “I’ve had this eerie feeling the Redevelopment Commission has been on trial.” About 25 persons attended last night’s meeting.

At issue since a May 1 political advertisement raised the question: why did RDC members buy the Brickyard Oct. 27, 2009 when a Phase 2 environmental site assessment (ESA) dated Oct. 7, 2009 found at one test site an arsenic concentration three times the normal background level?

Not altogether unexpected, said Steven Stanford of Weaver Boos Consultants who prepared the 2009 ESA, because it appears to correspond with combustion residue consistent with the brickyard and a furnace that operated on the site between 1893 and approximately 1925.

Said RDC member LeAnn McCrum, “Should we have said ‘Wow, this is abnormally high and we should test this’?”

RDC president Michele Bollinger later said, “Yes we have a problem. It’s not a huge environmental problem that you need a haz-mat suit to go near the property.”

Neither women were commission members in 2009, at which time the Weaver Boos study recommended “further environmental assessment be conducted prior to re-use or re-development of the property.” Snyder emphasized the recommendation was not to do further studies before the property was purchased.

Weaver Boos did caution that because Brickyard redevelopment is expected to include widespread disturbance of soils, “the potential remains for encountering additional adverse environmental conditions that were not revealed by this Phase II ESA.”

While the Brickyard project still is in the engineering phase, its concept plan includes single-family residential, townhomes, a senior-living complex, a new town fire station and neighborhood commercial uses.

Unresolved question lingers

The puzzle presented Tuesday was how could the RDC reasonably know how much it will cost to address the contamination --- whether to leave it alone, cover it or take it away ---until the site is disturbed during development and the extent of contamination determined?

Observed town attorney Patrick Lyp, “To a certain degree it’s a crap shoot. You can do all the soil borings in the world --- you won’t have definitive knowledge until you start turning dirt.”

It became apparent Tuesday that not all RDC members ever saw the Weaver Boos report, although it briefly was mentioned at the public Oct. 27, 2009 meeting and the general environmental situation more extensively discussed in a prior closed executive session.

The report was prepared for Lyp, who said he discussed its contents with Weaver Boos, former RDC president Mike Genger and Porter director of engineering and development Matt Keiser.

Lyp also hired Tim Harris, whose firm appraised the Brickyard property prior to the RDC buying it. He set a value of just over $1 million; the town paid $350,000. Last night, Harris said the appraisal, done prior to the Weaver Boos report, assumed no environmental contamination on the property because he wasn’t aware of any.

Stanford said Weaver Boos had done a Phase 1 ESA on the site in 2006 for the previous owner and recommended a Phase 2 study be undertaken.

Snyder asked Harris, “Did we purchase a worthless piece of property?” Harris said no. Snyder asked Lyp if the RDC did the due diligence expected of it; Lyp said the commission hired expert consultants on which it relied.

Lemonade out of lemons

Town planner Jim Mandon, who’s advised the town since 1997, said when there are constraints to developing a marginal property, government usually is involved at some level to make productive use out of it, especially in the Brickyard’s case because of its proximity across from Yost Elementary School and three blocks from Porter’s downtown.

As an example, continued Mandon, the Town of Munster purchased a landfill, licensed it, cleaned it up, operated it as a landfill and then closed it. Today, the site is Centennial Park with an amphitheater and golf course.

Like Snyder, RDC member Al Raffin extensively questioned the consultants. Raffin asked why the Phase 2 ESA was titled “preliminary". Stanford said because additional testing was recommended at some point, which Raffin said should have been done.

Raffin also asked Stanford if he would have bought the Brickyard without those additional tests. “I don’t care to comment,” Stanford replied, saying such recommendations were not part of the study.

Raffin said he was late to the 2009 meeting and did not vote on the Brickyard purchase but he probably would have because it’s a good project; however, he said he never read the Phase 2 ESA until recently and it raises questions how much the eventual remediation costs will be.

Said Snyder, “I feel I had enough knowledge for an educated vote. How much knowledge do we need? The next stage of finding out is when we start moving dirt.”

Some of the evening’s information came from anonymous written questions submitted from the audience including who would pay for a remediation. Bollinger said the town aggressively would seek grants like it always does to lower costs; Stanford said it’s not too early to apply.

Questioned were Keiser’s qualifications to advise the RDC because he’s not a professional engineer. Keiser said he has a lot of experience as a project manager in related fields. Added Snyder, “Matt’s well qualified. I don’t see what credentials he has means anything.”

Addressed through submitted questions was a recent email to Keiser from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management saying IDEM should have been notified of the results of the Weaver Boos study; Stanford said in 2009 he didn’t believe it to be reportable, and Keiser said it was intended for the town’s internal use.

IDEM became aware of the Brickyard following a neighbor’s complaint regarding the property earlier this month.

Also questioned was Keiser’s Oct. 27, 2009 statement to the RDC that any remediation required for the Brickyard could be done in-house. That was clarified to mean the town would have jurisdiction over the property and could decide how it wanted to proceed with clean-up if necessary.

 

Posted 5/18/2011