KEVIN LEININGER: Latest ‘North River’ clean up is cause for caution, but not yet alarm

The North River site was once the OmniSource scrap yard. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Lynn Partridge
Nancy Townsend
Kevin Leininger

To the doggedly pessimistic, Tuesday’s news that another $234,400 will apparently be needed to remove and monitor contamination on the so-called “North River” site confirmed their belief that City Council was duped into paying $4.63 million for a 30-acre former industrial site and assuming liability for any clean up despite being denied all available information about possible environmental problems.

That assessment is at the very least premature and, as of now anyway, is not supported by the evidence, according to city officials and at least one independent environmental remediation specialist.

Even so, a sentence buried in the city’s news release makes it clear the skepticism was and remains justified.

“It is likely that more remediation will be needed,” the city stated as it announced the Environmental Protection Agency grant that will pay for the removal of up to 2,400 tons of contaminated soil and installation of an additional 10 wells to monitor groundwater. How much additional clean up might be needed or whether additional federal or state grants might be available is unknown, but it’s already clear the city is ultimately responsible, thanks to the purchase agreement council approved by a 5-3 vote in late 2017 — a deal Glynn Hines, D-6th, called the worst-negotiated deal ever sent to council.

In that narrow sense, Hines may have been correct. In addition to paying about $1 million more than the property’s appraised value and assuming all risk for future remediation, a confidentiality agreement prevented the administration of Mayor Tom Henry from sharing a 2007 environmental assessment with council members prior to their vote. Only after the deal was done were those assessments released to Fort Wayne residents who may or may not have to pay for any unanticipated problems.

Tuesday’s announcement, however, is not proof of that. As I reported in December 2017, even then the city was predicting an additional clean-up bill of about $250,000 or so — an estimate an official with Environmental Remediation Services of Fort Wayne considered reasonable.

Tuesday’s news didn’t cause Lynn Partridge to change his mind.

“This is about what was expected at this site. There are some unknowns, and those may come into view as the earthwork proceeds,” said Partridge, who as business development director of company not involved in the clean up should be considered objective. “This unknown leads to CYA statements like ‘It is likely that more remediation . . . ‘ but most likely the site will be developed in a way to lessen, if not eliminate, exposure to residual contaminants if any exist.”

Partridge, who has more than 25 years of experience in the business, said 2,400 tons of contaminated soil equals about 150 truck loads, meaning removal could take about a month. “That seems like a lot, but for a site that size it is manageable,” he said. “Would I be concerned? I don’t think so.”

Although it’s possible previously undetected pockets of contamination exist, Partridge said it’s likely earlier tests would have identified any major “hot spots.” And as the city noted, the five monitoring wells that are already there “had not indicated any groundwater concerns.”

The additional 10 wells, Partridge said, will simply provide additional “insurance.”

Still, the relatively benign news released Tuesday contained at least two more cautionary notes.

First, even though Fort Wayne taxpayers will not be paying that $283,400 directly, federal grants still represent real money taken from real taxpayers, including those in Fort Wayne. Even if additional state and federal grants are available, as city Redevelopment Director Nancy Townsend suggested, the same reality will apply.

Second, consider the meaning of the assessment offered by Partridge and Townsend that the need for future remediation could be mitigated by the type of development that ultimately happens there. A parking lot may require little or no clean up, for example; an apartment building could require a lot.

Such considerations could reduce clean up costs, but in doing so could prevent the site considered a lynch pin of downtown development from being used for its highest and best purpose.

It’s clear the Rifkin family, former owners of the OmniSource scrap yard, drove a hard bargain with the city. It’s equally clear city officials wanted the site so badly they were willing to accept less than favorable terms in the hope future development would justify the risk.

It still might; Tuesday’s 2,400-ton clean up announcement didn’t provide much clarity one way or the other. What it did provide was another reason to pay close attention — and hope for the best.

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.