Epic cleanup begins at Gary’s toxic lagoon
By Carole Carlson firstname.lastname@example.org | 648-3154 June 9, 2012 10:36PM
Joshua Handley, of Envirocon and Operators Local 150, carries a section of piping that will be used to pump bentonite clay mixture into a slurry wall trench at the Ralston Street Lagoon (background) site in Gary, Ind. Wednesday June 6, 2012. Remediation work is continuing at the site located between the Indiana Toll Road and the Gary/Chicago International Airport. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Ralston Street lagoon timeline
1962: Sludge dumping begins in borrow pit
1976: U.S. bans PCBs
1983: EPA sues Gary for violating Clean Water Act
1986: Federal judge orders consent decree, halts dumping
1988: Sludge dumping stops
2009: EPA announces $66.5 million cleanup plan
2011: City purchases residents homes, work begins on Phase 1
2011: City raises stormwater fees 30 percent to pay for cleanup
2012: Phase 1 of cleanup nears completion
Updated: July 11, 2012 10:12AM
GARY — The secluded west side neighborhood once filled with chickens and horses has been replaced by giant yellow excavators and crews in hard hats.
No remnants of the Hispanic enclave nicknamed Cowboy Town remain now as the cleanup of the toxic Ralston Street lagoon shifts into high gear after decades of delay.
The 17-acre lagoon appears tranquil and inviting to motorists traveling the Indiana Toll Road near Clark Road. The Toll Road’s 1956 construction is believed to be the genesis of the borrow pit now known as the Ralston Street lagoon.
Just steps away from the Grand Calumet River, the stew of toxic sludge sits in the glide path of jets taking off from the Gary/Chicago International Airport just northwest of the lagoon. Flags and lights adorn construction equipment to make sure pilots avoid it.
The long delay
Filled with cancer-causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) that were banned in 1976, the lagoon has languished as the city dawdled and regulators figure out the best method to remediate it.
Because of its size — more than a half-million cubic yards of sludge — trucking it to a landfill was not an option.
“It would fill Soldier Field and rise to 200 feet high,” said Daniel F. Vicari, an environmental engineer with CDM Smith, the company overseeing the epic cleanup. “They realized there’s no magic bullet.”
Gulls soar overhead, but a 2004 study showed no fish in the lagoon, only an occasional turtle that probably wandered over from the river.
In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, entangled with the city over the cleanup for more than two decades, ordered a $66.6 million containment plan for the sludge.
The EPA worried the sludge represented a health risk if the chemicals leached from the lagoon into ground or surface water like the nearby river.
The EPA found high levels of PCBs in the sludge but none in the ground water. The Gary Sanitary District agreed to clean up the sludge in a federal consent decree ordered in 1986.
Finding a cure
From a barge placed in the lagoon, workers are running pilot tests on the sludge to come up with the right recipe to solidify it.
Over the next couple months, a “long stick” excavator, which came to Ralston Street via six flat-bed trucks, will scoop out a 60-foot deep trench around the lagoon.
Piping installed by local laborers will transfer a slurry mix of Bentonite clay powder and water to backfill the trench as the excavator digs. It’s highly specialized work and in this case, the company handling it is from Montana.
The resulting slurry wall will form a bowl around the lagoon, effectively containing any contamination from leaching out. The wall construction should take about 11 weeks, Vicari said.
Crews have set up three air monitoring stations around the lagoon to check for PCBs and benzenes as the work progresses.
Three piers or catwalks still extend into the lagoon. They were placed there by the GSD to stabilize the piping it used to pump its sludge into the lagoon.
Vicari said crews will have to remove, decontaminate and send the piers away to a hazardous waste landfill.
This first phase should be completed by November. Then, work begins on solidifying the sludge and capping it, a process that could last until 2017.
Michael Mikulka, a senior environmental engineer for the EPA, has been monitoring the project since work began.
“In 2008, I was brought into a meeting and told to get the project under construction. It began in 2011 and we went from not having a plan to getting it all designed and now we’re 75 percent done with Phase 1.”
Mikulka and Vicari suspect there were some “midnight” industrial waste dumpers adding to the lagoon’s toxic levels. But the illegal dumpers were never caught.
Paying the price
Back when the dumping began, no one knew of PCBs and the harm they could cause.
Now, Gary taxpayers are finding out. Last year, the City Council approved a 30 percent hike in stormwater fees to cover a $27.5 million bond for the cleanup.
In addition, the GSD spent $1.17 million for replacement housing and moving expenses for Cowboy Town residents who once watched Sanitary District sludge trucks come and go from the lagoon. The GSD purchased 6 acres from about a dozen residents and their property is now the staging area for crews cleaning up the lagoon.
Last year, the Sanitary District tried to convince the EPA to declare the lagoon a Superfund site making it eligible for federal funding but the agency rejected the request.