MICHIGAN CITY – When county officials signed off last month on the sale of a parcel of land once considered a brownfield, it marked the end of a long and costly process of environmental remediation.
And while the completion of work at the site, formerly part of the Josam Foundry on U.S. 12, was hailed as a success, there are plenty of other sites in Michigan City that are in the early stages of what could be a similar process.
At a recent Michigan City Brownsfield Coalition public meeting to discuss a U.S. EPA Brownfield Assessment Grant, a representative of the firm hired to coordinate and implement the grant talked about 17 sites that will be considered for assessment and potential future environmental remediation.
"The key word is potential," said Len Hinrichs of BCA Environmental Consultants. "Some of these sites may not have pollutants but they have the stigma of that possibility. The $600,000 grant will be used to assess those sites to find out."
Whether the sites turn out to be polluted or not, the assessment itself will go a long way to "stimulate redevelopment," Hinrichs said. "The assessment can clarify the environmental situation and make a property more marketable."
The 17 sites in Michigan City run the gamut from former factories to retail sites, mainly along the Trail Creek Corridor and railroad corridors on the north side, but also include areas across the city.
And Hinrichs stressed that the grant, of which Michigan City got the largest in the state last year, are only used for assessment and cannot be used for any necessary cleanup work.
"The EPA grants the funding to start the process. Potential developers don't want to take on that part of it," he said, "but the assessment can include cleanup cost estimates and that can be a huge factor in keeping developers interested in a site."
The assessment is a five-step process, though not all sites will require all five. If early assessments show no contamination or a low risk, a site can potentially be removed from the list early.
The first phase is an inventory of the properties, usually those with high redevelopment potential, Hinrichs said.
"A lot of these properties are now vacant or underutilized because of a real or perceived environmental condition. The 17 sites on this list were chosen because of their future potential."
Michael Kuss, general manager of the Sanitary District of Michigan City and chair of the Brownfield Coalition, which includes the City, the Redevelopment Commission and the Sanitary District, explained how the sites were chosen.
"The coalition worked together with the Planning and Economic Development departments to come up with a list of sites. We came up with a list and at first we planned to cut it down to 10 priority sites, but then we decided to stay with 17."
Kuss said cleaning up and reinvesting in these properties can protect the public, increase the tax base, facilitate job growth, utilize existing infrastructure, alleviate development pressure on undeveloped lands, reduce urban sprawl and improve the environment.
The second step is a Phase I Environmental Assessment, which includes a thorough look at the history of the site, what it was used for and what may have polluted it, Hinrichs said. Any historic, geologic or other survey, or other types of documents can be used in this step; along with a site visit.
"In Phase I we try to find the worst-case scenario for each site," Hinrichs said. "Phase I can also lead to certification that a property is clean."
A Phase II Environmental Assessment follows, if the first assessment shows the possibility of contamination. This step can include physical sampling and monitoring of groundwater, soil and air to determine if contaminants are present; and a geotechnical survey to determine if underground tanks or other potential sources of contamination exist.
If warranted, the next step would be cleanup planning and health monitoring, Hinrichs said.
"The big fear is always who pays for the cleanup," he said. "And it can get expensive fast, but by doing this assessment we are obligated to report anything egregious we find."
He said some funding options include private insurance from former owners, private developers taking on some of the cost, EPA grants and some state funds.
In Michigan City, the grant cycle started in October 2018 and will end in September 2021, though Hinrichs said it is unlikely the city will be able to complete the assessments on all 17 properties.
"It depends on how much time and work is needed on each site," he said. "We may not get to all of them, or we might find that some do not need a Phase II assessment."
Some work has started, he said, and the first step is getting permission from property owners to do the Phase I assessments. In some cases, that can get tricky, Kuss said.
While some owners have already signed off, other sites have multiple owners and all would need to sign off. On one site, two of seven owners have signed off; on another two of five; and on another three of four.
Kuss said so far, the owners of only four sites have signed off on allowing the initial assessment: Pioneer Pier, Pullman Barker, Trainer Glass and Tulles/Dekker.
"It's hard to do a site inspection if you're not allowed on the property," Hinrichs said. "We need to identify the potential of a site and for that we need access."
Potential brownfield sites
These are the 17 sites identified by the Michigan City Brownfield Coalition for assessment with funding from a $600,000 grant from the U.S. EPA.
• Pioneer Pier, 320 E. 2nd St.
• Blank, 600 E. 2nd St.
• Blocksom, 420 E. 5th St.
• Lake Industries, 1617 E. U.S. 12
• ITW Redhead, 1919 E. U.S. 12
• Pullman Barker, 1100 W. Barker Ave.
• Station Block, between 10th and 11th just east of Franklin
• Dwyer, 500 N. Carroll Ave.
• Royal Road, 403 Royal Rd.
• Trainer Glass, Tryon Road
• Joy, 921 Woodland Ave.
• Marquette Mall, U.S. 20 at Franklin
• Chair Factory, 200 E. U.S. 20
• Ameriplex, 9606 W. Pahs Rd.
• Brandt's, Wabash Street at U.S. 12
• Tellus/Dekker, 1215 E. 2nd St.
• Station Block West, between 10th and 11th just west of Franklin