(This piece was originally published on September 5, 2017 in the Indianpolis Star.)

When the Riverside community and nearby neighborhoods just northwest of Downtown first learned they were poised to be named a Superfund site – a designation for areas contaminated with toxic waste – they thought it was anything but super.

They were not alone.

Concerned over what such a label and its attached stigma would do to the community, residents along with city officials and business owners implored the state’s environmental agency to find another solution.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management listened.

Several years in the making, IDEM is now embarking on a first-of-its-kind plan for Indiana that works with residents, the city, the water utility and the federal government to keep the neighborhood off the Superfund list while still cleaning up the waste polluting the area’s groundwater.

The IDEM site is expansive, running from 35th Street on the north to Washington Street on the south, between Holt Road and Central Avenue. But the primary focus is the area in and around the Riverside neighborhood.

“We dug and we pushed back and we said to hold on, and I don’t think the state was prepared for the groundswell of community support,” said Riverside resident Aleks Gifford, a community leader in this process. “So we all sat down at the table and overwhelmingly the community said they wanted to go with a local option.”

That local option includes an agreement IDEM signed in June with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that defers the site’s addition to the Superfund National Priorities list and designates the state agency as the lead in the cleanup.

While just months into the collaborative rollout, this process started four years earlier and the contamination began decades before that.

The Riverside area has a history steeped in industry and manufacturing with numerous dry cleaners, machine shops and salvage yards dotting its streets. Bound not just by their location, they held something else in common: They would frequently use and dispose of chemicals – known as tri- and di-chloroethylenes – in their backyards.

“Their method of disposal used to be that they would dump it and it would go away,” said Bill Beranek, former president of the Indiana Environmental Institute and an environmental mediator. “But what we didn’t understand was that it wasn’t really ‘going away.'”

Now, decades later, those chemicals have migrated down into the groundwater of the deep aquifer – an aquifer in which Citizens Energy Group has its Riverside and White River well fields.

In 2013, Citizens reported to IDEM that it had detected low levels of these chemicals in its raw, untreated groundwater. The finished drinking water provided by Citizens – which undergoes a treatment process in its plants – has always been safe and meeting the Safe Water Drinking Act requirements, according to Dan Moran, director of water quality control.

Still, Joe Sutherland, the utility’s director of government relations, said it was their responsibility to pass those results along and react to what they felt was prudent information.

With this information, IDEM launched some of its own testing and ultimately decided to pursue a Superfund designation with the EPA. Being placed on the priorities list allows for the site to receive federal money and resources to address the contamination, as well as be backed by federal enforcement.

But along with these benefits comes the potential to tarnish the reputation of the neighborhood and depress property values. Residents – along with city officials, state politicians and business executives – said there had to be a better way.

The state has gone out of its way to provide that option, said Thomas Cook, chief of staff to Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.

“The most remarkable thing about this is that I would assume most meetings on these issues occur in government center boardrooms or in high-rise offices in Chicago where EPA offices are,” said Cook, who added that the city supports the local approach. “But most of the meetings we’ve had where policy decisions have been made with state leadership and neighborhood leadership were in Flanner House or Riverside Park.”

This is the first time IDEM has proposed a site to be a Superfund and then asked it be deferred to be addressed by the state cleanup program, agency spokesman Ryan Clem said. Indiana has 51 current Superfund sites, according to EPA records.

This unprecedented approach also involved a change of name from the Riverside site to site 0153 – a factor that might seem small but is significant for the community, including both residents and businesses.

One new but strong business presence in the community is 16 Tech, a technology district meant to draw developers and ignite innovation in the city. A Superfund designation, however, could have stalled its growth and goals on a dime, the company’s CEO told IndyStar.

“What would have happened is the concept of 16 Tech would have simply been mothballed, and extremely difficult to attract the developers,” Bob Coy said. “But now that the responsibility has been turned over to IDEM, we believe that the impediment developers would have faced will be significantly reduced.”

Yet there still is the question of the contamination and public safety.

IDEM’s efforts, which must be conducted in a manner similar to the EPA method, will work to identify the sources of pollution – both past and present – and help clean up those areas. There currently are nearly 100 potential sources on its radar as the agency begins its investigation across 11 neighborhoods and roughly four square miles, according to agency documents.

Citizens and the Marion County Public Health Department have committed to testing residents’ water at their request for no charge. The water utility has also pledged to take offline any wells that have testing results for the raw groundwater that are near or above EPA drinking water standards, according to Moran.

Although the drinking water has been unaffected and is expected to remain so, Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, worked to secure some additional funding in IDEM’s budget to address any immediate contamination concerns should they arise.

Once the responsible parties are identified, they will be required to help fund the cleanup efforts, Clem with IDEM said.

While it will be a long road ahead – a process that is expected to take several years – all parties involved are pleased and excited about the level of collaboration.

This is especially true of the residents, who said all they have to do is call up their elected official if they have a concern. As part of the process, the state agency also is funding and currently accepting applications, due later this month, for a technical mediator to help explain the science to the community.

And residents say they aren’t going anywhere, according to northwest resident Paula Brooks.

“So it’s not, ‘See you later, thank you,'” said Brooks, who also works as an environmental health associate at the Hoosier Environmental Council. “We are looking forward to collaboration because at the end of the day, that’s the only way you can get things done.”

Still, some worry if the contrasting expectations could clash with the kumbaya collaboration.

Sen. Taylor said there is always a concern about conflicting interests, which environmental expert Beranek echoed. But both said maintaining open lines of communication was key.

Gifford said he and his neighbors are excited to see the process get underway.

“We aren’t worried about the other players in this – we have our elected officials to hold accountable to make sure that we are getting what we need out of this,” the father of three said. “For the first time in 50 years of a dying community, we have hope that things are going to happen.”

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