HAMMOND — The director of the Hammond Environmental Management Department isn't sure what might be killing swans on George Lake, but he's certain Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. wants to get to the bottom of it.
HDEM Director Ronald Novak and department engineer Thomas Nyhan took more than 20 soil samples Wednesday at the Lost Marsh Golf Course, a multimillion-dollar redevelopment project constructed more than a decade ago atop a slag heap once known as Bairstow Mountain.
Though the city said in a news release last week the mute swans may have ingested lead released during a fire Sept. 20 at Whiting Metals, Novak said he's not ready to rule anything out.
"It's not us saying definitively it's them," he said. "It's us saying, 'There is a situation where we need data to try to correct this."
The Lost Marsh Golf Course lies along the south basin of George Lake, which was reduced to less than half its original size starting in the early 1920s as it was filled with industrial waste, according to a 1996 feasibility study.
Federated Metals operated from 1937 to 1983 as a smelting, refining, recovery and recycling facility for nonferrous metals including lead, copper and zinc. The company dumped its slag piles directly into the lake, filling in the northeast shore, records show.
At the Bairstow property along the lake's south shore, U.S. Steel and other local industries dumped slag, fly ash and other waste materials, records show.
The Amoco Oil Co.'s research and development disposal site on the southeast side of the lake included two to three dozen pits filled with fuels, lubricants, insecticides and "low-level radioactive materials used in engine wear-and-tear studies and possible weapons and munitions investigations," the study says.
A long history of remediation
Nyhan used a handheld X-ray device — which the city recently purchased for about $32,000 — that can measure the concentration of 17 metals in the soil. The device provides rapid results, but no data will be released until it's reviewed by city officials.
"The mayor wants to know the full scale of information, so he can make a decision on what needs to be done," Novak said.
Hammond purchased the X-ray device for a variety of reasons, Novak said. The city also is looking into purchasing equipment to test for contaminants in sediments underwater, he said.
Novak, who has been on the job more than 40 years, said he helped ensure the Federated Metals received $1.2 million as part of a bankruptcy settlement. He also helped steer redevelopment of Lost Marsh, which was honored by the state as a model for environmental remediation, he said.
When the city began planning to redevelop the Bairstow property in the mid-1990s, it was clear residents wanted the north basin of George Lake to be a conservation area, Novak said.
The city conducted an environmental assessment of the area. The work even included a radiological study, but no environmental problems were discovered, he said.
The golf course was built on 3.5 million cubic yards of steel mill slag, which can cause a white ring around the shore of the lake, he said.
"What we've done there is try to cap it as much as possible," he said.
The city mixed sludge from the Hammond Sanitary District, sand and lime to create a base soil. The sludge was tested for pathogens before it was applied at the site, he said.
The grass on the course helps capture rain, reducing the amount of infiltration into the slag.
Novak expected to find contaminants in the soil because of the site's history, but he planned to compare new results to previous sampling results.
There are a number of theories regarding the death of up to 30 swans, at least six of which had elevated lead levels in their kidneys, he said.
"Up until October, we had not had any reports of any serious damage out there," he said. "But this now appears to be a change out there. I think determining the source is really critical."
"We're formulating our own investigation, because in some instances we can move faster locally than the state and federal government can," he said. "We'd like to coordinate with them. We've been discussing and passing information back and forth."
IDEM said responsibility for maintaining the cap on the Federated Metals landfill currently rests with EPA's corrective action program.
After Federated Metals' parent company, ASARCO, went bankrupt, a court allocated $1.2 million to a federal trustee to complete the corrective action project at the site, IDEM said.
Le Petomane was appointed the trustee through a federal bankruptcy consent decree and settlement agreement, EPA said.
The trustee currently works with EPA, but will begin working with IDEM as the project transitions to long-term stewardship, IDEM said. The landfill eventually will be permitted under Indiana's hazardous waste program.
EPA said groundwater monitoring is conducted quarterly, and data shows the cap is working as intended. Further statistical analysis of groundwater data will be conducted after sampling in June, the agency said.