(This piece was originally published on September 5, 2017 in the Northwest Indiana Times.)

EAST CHICAGO — Government officials said they’re working to resolve data and reporting issues that resulted in the confined disposal facility being inaccurately listed on an EPA website for some wastewater violations during the past two years.

However, community activists said data and reporting issues remain a reason for concern and threaten to erode their trust in public officials, whom they rely on to accurately inform them of the risks posed by the storage of toxic sediments from the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal at the facility at 3500 Indianapolis Blvd.

Community members for months have been fighting the Army Corps of Engineers’ application for a permit under the Toxic Substances Control Act to store sediments containing higher levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBS, than previously allowed. More than 1 million cubic yards of sediment has been removed from the harbor and canal since 2012 and stored at the confined disposal facility.

The inaccurately reported violations appear on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online website.

Activists support dredging, but have raised concerns that the current plan doesn’t go far enough to adequately protect public health. They’re also opposed to the Army Corps’ current proposal to store the most heavily contaminated sediments at the confined disposal facility, which is less than a half mile from several East Chicago schools.

Trust at stake

Natalie Mills, project manager with the Army Corps, said the confined disposal facility is safe and well-operated and that the Army Corps is committed to operating the facility “in a manner that protects human health and the environment.”

“USACE works with IDEM to ensure that the wastewater treatment plant is operating safely,” Mills said. “Additional details on the plant operation have been provided to IDEM, who has concurred that the wastewater treatment plant operation is satisfactory.”

Thomas Frank, an East Chicago resident and environmental activist, said the community has questioned EPA about the information on its website and were told the system needs to be fixed.

“We want to have confidence in those who are handling the data and the information and that what they’re reporting out is real and reflective of the situation,” he said.

EPA’s ECHO website continues to show the inaccurate information, he said.

“We can’t have confidence if the only way we can have a true reflection of the risk is in a backroom discussion,” he said. “It doesn’t give me confidence. I want to make sure it’s public and their public face is telling me what risks we face.”

EPA did not respond to questions about community activists’ criticisms.

According to EPA, Indiana Department of Environmental Management inspectors visited the confined disposal facility in June 2016 in response to reported violations.

The violations were reported by an Army Corps contractor hired to operate a wastewater treatment plant at the site, officials said. Wastewater from the confined disposal facility flows into the Lake George Branch of the Indiana Harbor Canal, records show.

IDEM inspectors noted violations related to reported values of PCBs, hexavalent chromium and benzo(a)pyrene, a probable human carcinogen and member of a group of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, according to an IDEM violation letter.

Inspectors also found the facility was using a nonapproved method to test for pH and exceeded a maximum limit for zinc.

The facility was in significant noncompliance at that time for total suspended solids violations, EPA said.

Miscalculations, insufficient testing

“There have been no total suspended solids effluent violations since April 2016,” EPA said. “The only continuing effluent violations after that time are for pH violations that occurred through August 2016.”

The Army Corps said “exceedances” for PCBs and hexavalent chromium resulted from incorrect calculation of monthly average values in discharge monitoring reports. A review of data showed a laboratory was not using a sufficiently sensitive analytical method to measure benzo(a)pyrene, said Mills, the project manager.

No detectable levels of PCBs or hexavalent chromium were found in the wastewater, and the Army Corps has taken steps to ensure monitoring reports and testing methods comply with its wastewater permit, Mills said.

A galvanized metal spigot cause the zinc exceedances, and algal blooms were to blame for the pH issues, according to the Army Corps’ response to IDEM’s violation letter.

Samuel Henderson, an attorney with the Hoosier Environmental Council, said improper testing is a serious matter.

“Even without the (Toxic Substances Control Act) permit that the Corps is now seeking, the gigantic pile of contaminated mud in the CDF poses a very substantial risk to a very vulnerable community,” Henderson said. “East Chicago is already bearing heavy burdens of present and historical contamination. The fact that the Carrie Gosch school was relocated from the Superfund site to just down the block from the CDF is Exhibit A of how these burdens pile onto each other.”

The Army Corps’ permit application remains pending, according to IDEM and EPA.

“IDEM has heard and understands the concerns raised about the inclusion of (Toxic Substances Control Act) waste in the CDF and is carefully considering all potential options,” the department said.

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