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13 WTHR Indianapolis | Indianapolis Local News & Weather

Dangerous Exposure: 13 Investigates reveals state program lets contamination spread

Hundreds of companies tied to toxic sites have promised to clean it up, and in exchange the State protects them from lawsuits. But a WTHR investigation found major gaps, allowing the danger to spread.

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Across Indiana for years, 13 Investigates found neighborhoods at risk of contamination, both underground and in the air.

Hundreds of companies tied to toxic sites have promised to clean it up, and in exchange the State protects them from lawsuits. But a three month long WTHR investigation found major gaps, allowing the danger to spread and leaving families at risk.

It's all happening under a state program.

Abandoned factories, old work sites and active businesses share one messy problem: dangerous contaminants leaking from their sites into neighborhoods.

"I mean it's my water that I cook with, drink, bathe with," said Shana Lacy, who lives near a site where leaking tanks contaminated the groundwater.

"I want to see this whole mess cleaned up as quick as possible, there are children in this neighborhood" added Jeff Chupp, whose neighborhood is now facing a double threat of chemicals and asbestos.

The companies in both cases promised to clean up, but despite decades of warnings,13 Investigates discovered the State of Indiana failing to enforce its own environmental rules by allowing violators to hide in its Voluntary Remediation Program (VRP.)

Companies get 180 days to file a clean up plan, but some fail to submit them for over a decade - sometimes not even at all.

As long as the companies are enrolled no one can sue them, but nothing happens to businesses that fail to clean up their mess either.

Health emergency in Indianapolis neighborhood

Adam Rickert leads the Marion County Health Department's hazardous materials team.

He said he was alarmed to discover dangerous levels of vinyl chloride in three wells in a west side neighborhood, just a couple of miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 800 block of West Vermont Street.

"We're talking about (contamination levels) basically 30-times the drinking water standard," Rickert told 13 investigates.

The neighborhood is so contaminated, it's now recommended by the State of Indiana for the National Priorities List of the worst hazardous waste sites in the country. The National Priorities list provides federal dollars to help clean up sites deemed a threat to public health and the environment.

Rickert said in 20 years he has never found vinyl chloride in any other water system in Marion County.

The toxins forced the shutdown of all the water wells on Cossell and West Vermont Streets. The EPA spent an estimated $2 million dollars to put in temporary filtration systems until homeowners were all hooked up to city water last fall. The federal government said it was concerned those living in the area were drinking high levels of vinyl chloride.

"It causes brain, lung, liver cancer and cancers of the blood," explained Shelly Lam, the on-scene coordinator from U.S EPA Region 5.

The EPA has now warned Marisol Lopez and her neighbors that chemical vapors could seep into their homes.

"I was like, 'This is kind of scary,'" recalled Lopez, who moved into the neighborhood four years ago.

13 Investigates discovered this health scare could have and should have been prevented.

“You're putting a hazard towards other people”

For 10 years the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM,) has known about dangerous chemicals leaking into the soil and groundwater from a nearby industrial warehouse and a former dry cleaner.

Special air filters were installed at a daycare in the same strip mall where the dry cleaner once operated.

Early testing revealed the pool of toxins spreading towards Marisol Lopez's neighborhood across the street.

"It's not right, it really isn't especially knowing that you're putting a hazard towards other people," said Lopez, learning for the first time about the delayed clean up.

Contamination source linked to companies in VRP

Testing showed toxins spreading towards a west side Indianapolis neighborhood.

What's disturbing is both companies were part of the State's VRP. Genuine Parts still is.

But Aimco, the company that owned the site of the dry cleaner, was removed from the program last June, nearly a decade after joining the program. An environmental law judge determined the company was terminated for failing to take appropriate action.

IDEM claimed Aimco “failed to timely and adequately investigate the nature and extent of the investigation at the site,” and failed to conduct more testing and sampling, required by the State. IDEM also claims Aimco made the problem worse by injecting unapproved chemicals into the ground.

An Aimco spokeswoman said the company was surprised by IDEM's actions and had believed progress was being made just days before the termination.

Aimco is now discussing new clean up plans in environmental court.

"Well the state needs to follow through on that then," said Lopez.

Cindy Lempke, Corporate Communications Director of Aimco Michigan Meadows, sent a statement to 13 Investigates. She said:

Aimco Michigan Meadows holdings has been an active, responsible participant of the Voluntary Remediation Program since 2007. IDEM didn’t follow its own procedures to provide proper notice to AMMH before terminating its participation IDEM took no enforcement action, provided no notice of a dispute and denied AMMH the opportunity to enter into the dispute resolution process. There is no basis to tie AMMH to any contamination issues at the West Vermont residential area. EPA’s own indoor air testing results reported on 4/15/16 show no human health hazard. Designating this site as a Superfund site is unnecessary in the absence of a threat to public health.

Sites stagnant for a decade or more

“It's a way to avoid taking responsibility”

13 Investigates found dozens of sites languishing sometimes for 10 to 15 years.

Since 2000, 353 companies have participated in the VRP.

62 of them, or one in six companies, were terminated or threatened with termination for failing to clean up as promised.

In many of those cases it took IDEM nearly a decade to take action.

"That's a fundamental flaw in the program," explained Dick Van Frank, an environmentalist and retired scientist from Eli Lilly and Company.

Van Frank has been watching the workings of the VRP for years and said he isn't a bit surprised at company's hiding within the program.

"It's a way to avoid taking responsibility," added Van Frank.

"The former owners and operators of these facilities are responsible for those clean ups," insisted Lam. She said while the EPA responds to "imminent threats" it does not clean up the contamination.

13 Investigates visited sites that are part of the VRP across the state, including Seymour Housewares, now called Home Products International.

Billy Atwood isn't sure what leaked into the ground around his home.

His front porch is just 200 feet from the factory that makes ironing boards and coverings.

Buried in his yard, three monitoring wells put in by the company.

Yet Atwood said no one told him what they were looking for.

"My concern was 'Why do you want to drill? I think it's eight feet down,' samples of contamination I guess," recalled Atwood, as he showed 13 Investigates around his property.

The company promised IDEM it would monitor groundwater contamination, report the results and clean up the site.

But after 17-years in the State's VRP, IDEM threatened to kick the company out for a "lack of progress." That was in 2011.

Records show the Seymour Housewares site just underwent a new round of groundwater testing for a new residential well, as well as indoor air sampling at several homes for petroleum contamination. The site is considered active, now going into it's 23rd year!

IDEM side steps questions

13 Investigates asked to sit down and talk with IDEM staff members with knowledge of the Voluntary Remediation Program. The agency's communications director said that would not be possible for weeks. When we asked again, our request went unanswered.

Days later, 13 Investigates caught up with an IDEM representative following a public meeting.

IDEM Assistant Commissioner Bruce Palin did not give details on the VRP when questioned.

"How does that happen that a company can be in your program for decades and no one forces them to either clean up or take some sort of enforcement action?" questioned 13 Investigates.

"I really don't want to comment on anything until I've had a chance to talk to our media folks," said IDEM Assistant Commissioner Bruce Palin.

As part of his job duties, Palin oversees the agency's Land Quality Division, the division that handles the VRP.

13 Investigates asked Palin what a media person was going to tell him that he didn't already know, considering his years of experience with IDEM and his position.

"Because I've been here for years I know not to do an interview like this without having discussion with folks," he responded with a chuckle.

Palin would not even comment on a new VRP review panel mentioned during the course of the meeting.

Proposed legislation questions clean up delays

Questions about the State's VRP aren't altogether new for IDEM.

Lawmakers proposed changes to prevent clean-up delays during the legislative session in January. House Bill 1299 was sponsored by Representative David Wolkins of Wabash.

Brian Rockenseuss, a legislative liaison, told IDEM's Environmental Rules Board that Wolkins was concerned about sites "taking advantage" of the immunities and not working to get the properties into productive use.

The bill passed out of the House, but stalled in the Senate, where it never made it out of committee.

Contamination leaks into Goshen neighborhood

The Johnson Controls site in Goshen, Ind. has been in the VRP for 20 years.

At the time of the proposed legislation, IDEM had its hands full with a mess in Goshen, just down the street from Jeff Chupp.

"We're this close to the factory. I mean it's right over here," said Chupp pointing just up the block towards the old Johnson Controls site.

The location has been a part of IDEM's voluntary remediation program for 20 years.

Chemicals seeped into the groundwater and flowed offsite there too.

'We have always known, since early 1990's that there was some environmental concerns, under the surface," said Becky Hershberger, the city's Brownfield Coordinator.

Johnson Controls cleaned up the contaminated water on its property and connected nearby homes to city water before selling the site to Tocon Holdings in 2013.

But neighbors say the plan didn't go far enough, and they have filed two class action lawsuits. One claims chemical vapors have intruded their homes, another focuses on the high levels of groundwater contamination that have now flowed all the way to the high school. In some areas the contamination is 230-times higher than what's allowed by federal guidelines.

State's blunder leads to asbestos exposure

And just months ago, the same Goshen neighborhood near the old Johnson Controls site got more bad news.

A botched plan to tear down the old buildings created yet another threat - asbestos.

The Johnson Controls demolition was done in phases beginning in 2012. The demolition was completed in 2014. Johnson Controls tried to get IDEM to issue a certificate of closure under its Voluntary Remediation Program. In December 2015, IDEM air quality inspectors went to the site of the demolition to inspect it for Asbestos, but according to the agency's own records, the inspectors never took a single sample to test for asbestos.

In February 2016, an environmental company working for plaintiffs living in the neighborhood near the site, collected 115 samples from the debris piles.

An environmental report shows 41%, or 47 of those samples tested positive for asbestos.

It was Hersberger's worst fear come true.

"IDEM was notified that we knew there was asbestos. They have assured us all along that everything was taken care of," she told 13 Investigates.

"I'm surprised they didn't inspect better," said Chupp speaking of IDEM. "They really could have done a lot more to help protect the people of this neighborhood," he added.

Tarp, new fencing and warnings at the site now signal a neighborhood in double jeopardy of contaminants. Some residents believe IDEM is in part to blame.

The EPA has since taken over.

IDEM’s response to delays and dropping the ball?

“I'm not going to respond to your questions at this time”

IDEM's response to all of this? It seems no one at IDEM wants to talk about any of it.

Assistant Commissioner Bruce Palin took offense to our presence at IDEM's Environmental Rules Board Meeting on May 11th.

"I don't appreciate being 'hijacked' at a meeting like this," he said, as 13 Investigates asked questions well after the meeting had concluded.

13 Investigates reminded Palin that he was a State Government official and that the meeting was open to the public.

"Are you guys hiding from this issue?," 13 Investigates pressed.

"I'm not going to respond to your questions at this time," Palin said as he turned and walked out the door.

In an email, an IDEM spokeswoman now said the agency is evaluating if and when it should assign more oversight to the voluntary remediation program.

The spokeswoman provided no dates to sit down to answer questions about the delays.

CLARIFICATION: Our report first indicated the final demolition occurred after IDEM's inspection in December 2015. The demolition was actually done in phases with the last structures torn down in 2014. IDEM's inspection did occur in December 2015 as part of a dispute over the presence of asbestos by Johnson Controls, Tocon Holdings and plaintiffs of a lawsuit. And as reported, IDEM failed to take any samples from the debris to test for asbestos.