By Scott Smith Kokomo Tribune
---- — Anyone new to Kokomo might wonder why a 10-acre bit of green space is sitting unused and fenced off in the 400 block of South Washington Street.
Located next to a new $1.3 million trailhead area the city just installed along the Wildcat Creek, and across Washington Street from Foster Park, the site — a filled-in former quarry — seems to have commercial or recreational potential.
City officials definitely think so, and are moving ahead with plans to acquire the brownfield site.
“Rather than have a grass lot site there, if there’s a way to potentially redevelop it in the future, and we could assist, and make sure the environmental issues had been remediated, it could be something good for the city,” Kokomo city attorney Lawrence McCormack said.
For decades, environmental issues have been the main drawback to developing the site, which was a former dumping ground for Union Carbide’s Stellite division until 1970.
Cabot Corp., which took over the property after 1970, excavated about 400 barrels of hazardous waste back in 1989. During that excavation, a barrel ruptured, sending a plume of gas 40 feet into the air.
Witnesses said it smelled like rotten eggs, and later analysis suggested the barrel contained hydrofluoric acid, which reacted with sulfide-contaminated soil to create a toxic plume of hydrogen sulfide gas.
The Kokomo Fire Department hazardous materials team was mobilized, and according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, workers on-site and potentially thousands of neighbors living to the northeast of the site were exposed to the gas.
Cabot also did some research, and told state environmental officials they’d “uncovered enough information to suggest that drums of radioactive waste may have indeed been buried in the quarry in the late 1960s or as late as 1970.”
Under a cleanup license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, most of the waste, including all of the barrels, was excavated from the site, but some 55 tons of old grinding wheels, contaminated with what Cabot officials called “naturally occurring radioactive material” are still buried there.
In correspondence with state environmental officials in 1990 and 1991, Cabot attorneys described the materials as “very slightly radioactive,” and said they were at the “lower limit of [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] regulation.”
“Many natural or semi-natural materials such as granite and bricks contain comparable amounts of radioactivity,” a Cabot attorney wrote in a March 18, 1991 letter to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. “If such articles are safe on store shelves, safe to use in the workplace and safe to use to build homes and offices, they are safe in the quarry.”
This month, the Kokomo Board of Public Works & Safety agreed to take over the property, on the condition that Cabot excavates and disposes of the grinding wheels, under EPA supervision.
That means Cabot will have to excavate some 10 to 15 feet down, just to get to the grinding wheels, which are consolidated in one corner of the rectangular site. Cabot officials indicated they’d marked the exact location of the grinding wheels, in the event future regulations required their removal, or a future owner wanted them gone.
Cabot officials were hoping to market the site for redevelopment when they started excavating it in May 1989, but they found considerably more contamination than they’d expected.
Instead of one or two dozen barrels, there were hundreds. And after the incident with the ruptured barrel, excavation proceeded slowly, with radiation detectors used to scan every foot of soil.
Barrels filled with carcinogenic chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls were among the items removed.
Just about everything excavated was taken out of an area at the northeast corner of the site, up against edge of the former Southside Lumber company property.
That corner is where the grinding wheels remain, and where Cabot will excavate when ready.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials, contacted Sept. 24 about the property, were unable to respond to a request for more information prior to the Oct. 1 shutdown of the federal government.
Statement from Cabot Corp. re: Washington Street Quarry property As part of Cabot Corporation's Property Management program, we have offered to donate land we own on Washington Street to the city of Kokomo, Indiana for public use. Throughout our ownership of the property, which was historically a quarry and a landfill, we have worked closely with the proper authorities to ensure the cleanup of the site. In order to put this former landfill site back into productive use, Cabot has taken action to remediate the land and remove any potential environmental contamination. In the final stage of this process, Cabot is removing industrial grinding wheels that were left at the property. Thorough testing and analysis determined that these grinding wheels contain very low levels of naturally occurring radioactive material (â€œNORMâ€�), pose no health concern and are well below the level at which they would be subject to regulations. However, in an abundance of caution, Cabot has chosen to remove the wheels before the property is donated to the City. Cabot is committed to being a responsible and respected citizen in the communities in which it operates, and wants to ensure that the people of Kokomo have a clean and safe area to enjoy for the future.