KEVIN LEININGER: Does redevelopment of contaminated sites mean Fort Wayne has learned history’s hard lessons?

The former I.J. Recycling plant next to Glenbrook Square was torn down in 1993 after a chemical reaction that forced a mass evacuation in 1986. (News-Sentinel file photo)
The former I.J. Recycling site, cleaned at a cost of about $9 million, can be yours for $1.39 million. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
Kevin Leininger

With shoppers flocking to Glenbrook Square this week for after-Christmas bargains or to return gifts, think of the chaos that could be caused by a possibly hazardous chemical reaction just a few blocks away.

But no such imagination was needed on the morning of Sept. 9, 1986, when a mistake by a worker at the I.J. Recycling plant led to an ignition that spewed black smoke into the air, forced the evacuation of 3,000 people from a 20-block area and resulted in a $9 million government-led environmental cleanup. The lessons taught by that particular bit of Fort Wayne history should be kept in mind during any evaluation of recent news created by two other high-profile contaminated sites.

The environmental concerns at the former General Electric campus and the so-called “North River” property were created by a century of industrial activity at each site, but the I.J. Recycling story began on Nov. 21, 1980, when the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals somehow thought it would be a good idea to locate an industrial waste plant next door to one of the state’s busiest shopping districts. It took just six years to prove how foolish the BZA was to ignore neighbors’ fears.

Why does any of this matter all these years later? Because, for all the legitimate concerns about plans to bill city taxpayers at least hundreds of thousands of dollars for North River cleanup and a $3 million loan from restaurant tax revenues for cleaning the “Electric Works,” the projects represent improvement in the remediation and redevelopment of Fort Wayne’s “brownfields” — with a couple of exceptions.

With the help of a $2.3 million city-backed bond, Hanchar Industrial Waste Management converted the former Wayne Dairy Co-op at 3651 N. Clinton St. into a recycling facility before selling to I.J. Recycling in 1985. But when I.J.’s owners declared bankruptcy following the 1986 incident, Allen County government took possession of the property for non-payment of taxes and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took charge of the cleanup, declaring the plant a “superfund” site and spending about $8 million to remove contaminated soil. The EPA later billed GE and other companies millions of dollars because they had sent waste to I.J., and the county spent an additional $800,000 on remediation before it dropped plans to locate a juvenile detention facility there.

Finally, in 2005, the county sold the vacant 5.3-acre site to Dar Highlen, whose porch and patio store is across the street, for $600,000. Listed for sale at nearly $1.4 million, it has been on the market ever since despite the contention of real estate broker Steve Wesner in 2006 that “every third call I get” had been generated by the former I.J. site.

So what can I.J. Recycling’s past teach us about present and future efforts to redevelop contaminated properties in Fort Wayne?

Despite the public cost of cleaning up North River and GE, it could have been worse. In contrast to the I.J. owners, both GE and the former owners of the OmniSource scrap yard that formerly occupied the North River property have already done considerable remediation work. It would be nice if the companies responsible for contaminating the properties in the first place footed more of the cleanup bills, as they did with I.J., but the redevelopment of the properties is expected to justify the expense. It should also be obvious that converting industrial sites located near residential and commercial areas to more appropriate use is wise public policy.

As for the I.J. site, it currently generates $18,337 in annual property taxes despite being “clean” for almost anything but residential use by the EPA. Greg Leatherman, the city’s director of community development and former brownfield director, said it confounds him the property hasn’t sold despite its apparently desirable location. “My perception is it’s a market issue, not an environmental issue,” he said.

“I can’t give you anything,” Highlen said after I asked for an update on the status of his property. “Maybe in a few months.”

So who knows? Maybe at long last the site of perhaps the greatest, most costly and utterly avoidable environmental challenge in city history will be returned to appropriate, productive use. But it hasn’t happened yet, while the North River and GE sites are already slated for public-private projects that have the potential to generate not only excitement but considerable public and private revenue. That would be a good outcome, despite a few potholes along the way.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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