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How Toxic PCBs Are Contaminating Bloomington's Groundwater

Covering soil Lemon Lane

This is the second story in a three-part series.

Officials say Bloomington won’t see the end of pollution from the toxic industrial compounds known as PCBs for at least a few more decades.

A massive cleanup has led to the removal of most of the ground-level contamination, but Bloomington’s geography lets PCBs linger in areas of groundwater.

Westinghouse Electric used PCBs at its manufacturing plant on Curry Pike from about 1958 to 1977. Congress banned their use and manufacture in 1979. By that time, local officials knew they needed to coordinate a cleanup, because they the Winston Thomas sewer plant south of town had been contaminated by the PCBs Westinghouse poured down the drain.

What they didn't know was that the pollution extended far beyond the sewer system.

PCBs Still Exist In Groundwater, Despite Massive Cleanup

Bloomington City Utilities Deputy Director John Langley recalls when an individual appeared at the mayor's office one day.

“He walked into the mayor’s office one day and said 'If you think you’ve got a problem there, you need to see this old landfill,'” Langley says.

He was talking about the Lemon Lane Landfill, an old city-owned dump just east of State Road 37 and Vernal Pike. As officials were about to discover, Westinghouse had brought defective electrical components there for years. Those electric-storing devices called capacitors arrived full of PCBs.

“At the time when the landfill was being used, they scavenged capacitors, and the oil within the capacitors were dumped on the ground,” says Environmental Protection Agency Project Manager Tom Alcamo. “That leaked underneath the landfill, deep into the rock. So as groundwater flows in the karst, through the rock, it picks up that PCBs.”

Some of the water passing under Lemon Lane surfaces in a spring half a mile away. Today, it goes straight into a water treatment plant whose sole purpose is to remove PCBs.

“Every drop of water that comes through that spring is treated,” says Pat Kneip, Vice President of the environmental consulting firm PSARA Technologies.

CBS, the company that acquired Westinghouse, is in charge of the plant. It has hired PSARA to run it.

Kneip says the plant can process up to 6,000 gallons of water a minute – though it only reaches that capacity during heavy rains.

“There are backups for just about everything,” he says. “We have an emergency generator that runs the system if the power were to go out, we have backup pumps, backup level controls, backup equipment for just about every critical process.”

But the dumping did not end with Lemon Lane. Officials discovered four more sites where Westinghouse had brought trash.

One was Bennett’s Dump, a former quarry northwest of State Road 37 and State Road 46. Another was Neal’s Landfill on the city’s far western edge. Some capacitors ended up at another Neal’s property in Owen County, and the city-owned Anderson Road Landfill.

The Westinghouse property was also heavily contaminated, and officials still had to clean up the sewer plant.

Alcamo, the EPA project manager, says individually the sites are about average size among the cleanups he has managed in the past.

But together, he says “the number of sites is definitely, definitely something that makes it unique compared to other communities across the country."

Community Involvement And Opposition To Cleanup Efforts

Dennis Williamson first got involved in the PCB issue when he joined the county health department staff in the early 1980s. He walks up the stairs to the department attic, where his files line the walls.

“Lemon Lane, Neal’s Landfill, Winston Thomas,” he says, looking through packages of photo prints. “I've got so many pictures.”

By the early 1980s Westinghouse faced lawsuits from both the City of Bloomington and the EPA. To settle them, it agreed to negotiate a cleanup. But the deal the company reached with officials in 1985 appalled many residents. It included plans for Westinghouse to build an incinerator to destroy PCB wastes and bury the ash just north of town on Bottom Road.

That led to the creation of the group Citizens Opposed to PCB Ash, or COPA. In the early 1990s opponents convinced the Indiana Assembly to effectively scrap those plans by passing pollution standards the incinerator could not meet.

All five official parties – the EPA, the city, the county, the state and Westinghouse corporate successor CBS – headed back to the table. Alcamo says from there, the discussion became more productive.

“We had to explore these other, other alternative remedies, and it got very complex and difficult negotiations, but we worked through," he says. "I think we’ve made a lot of progress down there."

In 2000, cleanup crews removed about 80,000 tons of dirt and 4,400 old capacitors from Lemon Lane. Williamson documented their work in his pictures.

“There’s the guys in their protective gear," he says, holding a picture from the Lemon Lane cleanup that shows workers excavating layers of contaminated dirt. “This is the dirty stuff, this is the clean stuff going on top. You see that equipment and the size of those vehicles we were using to haul this dirt off right there.”

The crushed capacitors went to an incinerator in Port Arthur, Texas, while the soil went to a hazardous waste landfill in Michigan.

About 40,000 tons of dirt came out of Neal’s Landfill. Williamson has saved those pictures, too.

“See the fill area here? All that’s been removed. There’s a lot of capacitors down through there. Junk just thrown in. You can imagine what was thrown in there back in the early '60s,” he says.

Still A Long Way To Go

Some of the less contaminated dirt at Neal’s Landfill and Lemon Lane stayed. It got pushed into one big mound at each site and covered with a giant plastic liner, which the EPA calls a cap. With grass growing on top, the sites look a bit like golf courses, except for the surrounding fence and drainage ditch.[pullquote]These aren’t walkaway remedies. -EPA Project Manager[/pullquote]

But Alcamo says while the cleanup has advanced, no one can call it done.

“No,” he says.  “No, no, no, no, no. That’s one thing you have to keep in mind, that these aren’t walkaway remedies.”

He says it’s impossible to set a date for the end of the cleanup. Nobody knows when PCBs might stop washing out of the porous karst topography. Langley suggests “dozens and dozens” of years as a minimum for contamination to drop below problem levels. Fish in Clear and Richland Creeks will likely remain too polluted to eat for years to come.

And CBS can’t just assume it understands the ways PCBs might move around at the cleanup sites. It has to show through test’s the pollution’s under control.

Alcamo says at Bennett’s Dump, they’re still building.

“You would be expecting some time next summer to be constructing a collection trench, a small water treatment plant, to treat the contaminated spring water from there,” he says.

All parties insist the future of the cleanup is secure. The Consent Decree – the cleanup agreement they negotiated and signed in federal court – binds them to it. Langley says that means only the collapse of the judicial system itself could put it at risk.

CBS representative Dottie Alke says the company isn’t going anywhere.

“CBS Corporation has its responsibilities here, and will carry out its responsibilities," she says. "That’s why we’re staffed to do this and why we’re here and why we’ll continue to be here to address the issues that remain going forward."

That doesn’t mean the parties have always agreed on their obligations. The EPA used its own money to build the Lemon Lane water treatment plant in 2000, after negotiations with CBS broke down. The company later took over operation and oversaw the plant’s expansion.

Kneip says its treated 1.5 billion gallons – about 62 million bathtubs full – of PCB-contaminated water since it came online.

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