Voluntary cleanup needs a higher gear

Keywords Opinion

Are the owners of polluted properties using a state remediation program to duck responsibility for cleaning them up?

It’s hard to reach any other conclusion when you consider that several local properties enrolled in the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s VoluntaryRemediation Program have been in it for more than a decade. Property owners who participate receive certain protections for agreeing to take responsibility for cleanup.

The evidence suggests they’re not taking that responsibility seriously. All told, more than 50 local properties are part of the program and more than 20 of those have been in it for more than 10 years. Of those 10, several still don’t have a state-approved plan for site cleanup. Such plans are supposed to be filed within six months of enrollment in the program.

The slow pace of cleanup at the sites was brought to the attention of IDEM Commissioner Tom Easterly in a letter sent last year by Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, who asked that the state partner with the city to get the subject properties returned to productive use.

City officials told IBJ reporter Kathleen McLaughlin for a page one story last week that the city and state are working more closely than they had been to get the sites cleaned up and are doing what they can within their tight budgets.

That’s looking at the bright side. A more critical view is that there’s no excuse for contaminated sites languishing for decades. If the voluntary program is so easy on its participants that cleanup can be delayed for years, it’s time the state revisit the program. As for funding, this is more evidence that chronic budget cutting has real consequences.

Underfunded agencies and programs that put cleanup in the hands of those who have the least to gain are a recipe for failure. People who live near these polluted sites and the cities whose economic development efforts are hamstrung by polluted properties deserve quicker resolution.

One high-potential redevelopment site waiting for voluntary cleanup is the 49-acre former RCA/Thomson Electric property at Michigan Street and Sherman Drive. Although a cleanup plan is in place, it will take several more years for the work to be completed.

Chemtura Corp.’s 37-acre site adjacent to Brookside Park has been part of the voluntary remediation program for 14 years. The company filed a cleanup plan in October 2013, but IDEM rejected it, citing 44 areas of concern. At least IDEM isn’t rubber-stamping cleanup plans, but it’s hard to imagine the rejection was a big blow to Chemtura. Delay tactics are the name of the game, after all.

Remediation and redevelopment will continue to plod along until the state reconsiders a program that in too many cases just isn’t working.•

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