13 Investigates report 'Dangerous Exposure' gets results

Dangerous Exposure: New Cleanup Plans
Dangerous exposure

Tipton Mayor Don Havens had no idea that the clean-up to prevent potentially cancer-causing chemicals from leaking into one of the city's municipal drinking water wells had stalled.

"Your call made us aware, brought our attention to the matter," Havens told 13 Investigates.

Old tanks buried underground were leaking into the soil at Acraline and migrating off site.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) determined the hazardous substance was an "imminent or substantial threat to human health and the environment" after discovering the plume.

"I mean, it's my water that I cook with, drink, bathe with. I mean, that's a little concerning," said Shana Lacy, who lives a block away from the plant. She didn't know about the threat, either.

For ten years, Acraline promised to clean up the contamination as part of Indiana's voluntary remediation program. Companies that participate in the program cannot get sued as long as they are enrolled.

13 Investigates discovered voluntary remediation sites across the state putting neighborhoods at risk by leaching chemicals The companies who promised to clean them up, didn't.

Worse yet, in some cases IDEM didn't take any enforcement action for decades.

"What's the point of having the rules if they aren't going to enforce them?" questioned Lacy.

It's what happened in Tipton.

In 2012, Acraline was terminated..for "(failing) to substantially comply with the terms" of the remediation.

"You would think the state would be a little more forceful. If it's a potential danger, you need to clean it up," Lacy said in disbelief.

One year after Acraline was terminated from the Voluntary Remediation Program, its insurers came to a settlement and agreed to clean up the contamination before it reached the city's municipal water well. But for three years nothing happened - until 13 Investigates started asking questions.

Acraline's attorney told 13 Investigates a confidential insurance settlement to pay for the clean-up lapsed because "The insurers could not find a bank" that would control the cleanup. The banks, he said, don't want to assume liability "for all costs."

But just one week after we spoke with attorney Frank DeVeau, the parties reached a new agreement: "Remediation would start" as early as June.

"We're please to hear that any remediation that might be required to satisfy IDEM is in fact going to take place," said a relieved Havens.

DeVeau concedes our investigation was the spark.

"So to that extent we're appreciative of the help. We'll be glad to get this issue resolved to the safety of all of our water users," Havens told 13 Investigates.

There's no resolve at one of the state's largest voluntary clean-up sites where some say warnings about a public waterway don't tell you everything you need to know.

"Children play in it. I've seen children play in it and it's contaminated," said chemist Dick VanFrank.

The warnings posted along Pleasant Run Creek in Garfield Park alert visitors sewer overflows could make people sick. But 13 Investigates has discovered it's not the only threat lurking in the creek.

IDEM says it's at risk of contamination from chemical solvents and petroleum flowing from the old Citizens Coke Plant.

"Really should stay out of Pleasant Run Creek water," said Geoff Glanders, the Environmental Consultant working for Citizens on the cleanup.

For nearly 100 years, the plant produced a fuel used in industry. In 2007 it shut down leaving behind an environmental mess.

Now a decade into the clean up, inspectors discovered hazardous contaminants leaching through retaining walls and into Pleasant Run.

"The sheen shows up blue black stuff oozing from the bank," VanFrank explained. As a retired biologist, he knows what to look for.

VanFrank snapped photos years ago and sent them to IDEM as evidence of contaminants floating from the facility and into the creek. Contractors hired by Citizens are now digging up contaminated soil along the banks but only on its site.

For now there's no specific plan to remove contaminants off site.

"It currently does not pose a threat to human health, but it does have a potential for ecological impact," Glanders told 13 Investigates.

Last September, IDEM asked for additional soil samples, warning: "Visual inspections are not adequate," and questioning "correlations between the observation of tar and the threat to human health and the environment."

But Citizens and its clean-up consultant dug in their heels saying, "further excavation is not planned or anticipated..." until a future plan is submitted.

In other words, they'll get to it later.

"It's spreading and once it gets off the VRP site, it's no longer their responsibility," said Van Frank, who's concerned about delays in clean-up.

The longer the sites are allowed to sit, the greater the potential harm.

"It's the citizens of Indiana that are bearing the brunt of the failure of that program," he concluded.

Citizens says it's awaiting comments from IDEM on its final remediation steps for the gas supply area. The company plans to remove excessive coal tar from the creek next summer.

In Tipton, testing so far has revealed no contamination at the city well.