MICHIGAN CITY – Michigan City officials continue to monitor Trail Creek and adjoining city property following a diesel fuel spill last summer, and local residents remain concerned about possible effects on fish in the stream and a perceived delay in public notification.
At a public information session Thursday night at City Hall, Michael Kuss, general manager of the Michigan City Sanitation District, gave a timeline of events, and the city and state response.
The spill occurred July 21 on a section of Trail Creek just south of Springland Avenue near the lamprey barrier, but the city was not notified by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management until July 23, Kuss said.
"By law, Southshore Freight should have notified IDEM within two hours of the leak, and also notified the city," but that notification never happened, he said.
City officials were notified by IDEM, which had been on the site July 22 and 23, and said "there was no sheen now visible and no ongoing threat to Trail Creek," Kuss said.
A week later, on July 30, IDEM notified the city of possible impacts to city owned property between Trail Creek and the leak site – a refueling station owned by Southshore Freight. The city then hired a law firm to find out how city property was impacted and how to remediate it, he said.
The spill was caused by fuel leaking from an underground pipe, but, "No one has identified how much was spilled; but I assume it was not just a few gallons," Kuss said.
He explained that an oil sheen is .0002 inches thick and it would take 2.38 gallons to cover the section of Trail Creek from the spill site to the lamprey barrier at any one time. But he said he was certain "much, much more" fuel was discharged.
The fuel leaked from an underground pipe – on Southshore Freight property near the NICTD property on Roeske – into ground, Kuss said. It migrated onto the NICTD property through groundwater and into a storm drain, water from which was discharged from a pipe about 900 feet from Trail Creek. The fuel then flowed onto a city-owned wetland wooded area, likely via a small ditch, he said.
"We still saw a small sheen near the discharge point when we were out there," Kuss said, "which might be on city property. That was the only contamination we saw, but that is a very wild area, almost like a jungle, so it's hard to get in there. We're thinking about getting someone with a drone to fly over and check if we can see any more contamination."
Meanwhile, Southshore Freight hired EnviroServe to perform remediation work, which included an earthen dam near the discharge site to back up water, then used absorbent pads to collect fuel.
"There was no oil when we were there," Kuss said. "The water from the discharge pipe was clear and the pads were clean." He said there are 11 dumpsters out there used to dispose of pads and oil captured from filtering water, but he did not know if they were full.
Another question the city is concerned about is when the leak started. "We don't know how long it was leaking, probably quite a while," Kuss said.
For now, the city will monitor Trail Creek, coordinate with IDEM, do follow-up facility inspections, and check on possible contamination to city property, he said.
"It was a good sign that we had rain last night and heavy rain last weekend, and no sheen was visible on the creek," Kuss said. "We still want to know how much was leaked, how long it was leaking, and whether they knew about it."
Todd Relue, the attorney with Plews Shadley Racher & Braum of Indianapolis hired by the city, said, "It was a subsurface release and we need to know if there is subsurface contamination. We want them to monitor the groundwater.
"Did the fuel get to the creek above or under the ground? And we need to know if there is ongoing contamination to Trail Creek."
That was one issue of concern for the handful of residents who attended the meeting.
Rodney McCormick asked if anyone was "doing any testing of the water or the fish?
"People come from everywhere to fish on that creek," he said. "Is it safe to eat the fish? I fish all the time and I'm not sure I want to eat the fish. Can you say with 100 percent certainty that it's safe to eat?"
Kuss said IDEM told the city there was no impact to fish, but he was uncertain if testing was or will be done.
"I would suspect that that there is not any impact to the fish, but I don't know if the state is planning to ask them to test the fish and wildlife."
Tara Wolf, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, said Friday the fish are safe to eat.
"There was not a fisheries impact as a result of the diesel spill," she said. "DNR does not test the fish, but IDEM collects and tests fish tissue for PCBs and mercury."
A fish consumption advisory would be put out by the Indiana Department of Health if fish are not safe to eat, she said. No advisories are currently in place for Trail Creek or Lake Michigan.
The recent die-off of some fingerlings was not related to the spill, she said. "There is not a connection between the hatchery die-off and this event."
McCormick also asked why no representatives from IDEM, DNR, NICTD or Southshore Freight were at the meeting.
Kuss said the rail line and NICTD had been notified, but did not attend, and he could try to set up another meeting and ask all parties to take part.
Tony Childers questioned why the city waited almost two months before issuing a press release on Sept. 20, saying he had to go to the Sanitation District to request it.
"I had to come down to the Sanitation office to ask – and I was not happy," he said. "Why were people not notified of this when you knew for two months?"
Kuss said IDEM had told the city there was no ongoing threat to fish or Trail Creek, and the city property that might have been impacted was remote and inaccessible to the public, so it was not believed a press release was necessary until people started to express concerns.
"In hindsight, we could've done more to notify the public, but we were told there was no threat to health or the stream," Kuss said.