Contamination at new Marion County justice center site raising concerns

An independent environmental assessment of the site for the new Marion County jail and courthouse has some judges questioning if the property will pose a health hazard to the people working and visiting the courts, but others are cautioning to not let fear dictate decision-making.

The Marion Superior Courts commissioned ATC Group Services LLC to review the environmental reports and review the remediation plan for the property that will be the new home of the Marion County Community Justice Center. For 99 years, the site at 2950 E. Prospect St. in Indianapolis was the home to Prospect MGP, which manufactured gas and other items like metallurgical cokes, coal tar and molten sulfur.

Testing has found contamination in the soil, the surface water of Pleasant Run Creek which runs through the site, and in the groundwater. The toxins range from carcinogens and expected carcinogens such as Benzene and Naphthalene to lead, arsenic and mercury.

ATC said judges, court staff, inmates and visitors to the campus could all potentially be at risk from the environmental hazards. However, the report concluded “an unreasonable risk to human health and the environment does not appear likely” if the remediation work and mitigation systems are put in place as the city is proposing.

Andy Mallon, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s representative for the project, sees the report as an “absolute validation” of all the work on the site that has been done so far.

But not all Marion County judges are convinced and, according to Presiding Judge Heather Welch, the courts are asking the city and ATC for additional information. The courts are concerned the people who work for the judiciary, the Indianapolis residents who come to the courthouse for business and especially the inmates in the county jail would be at a heightened risk of harm.

Welch compared the courts’ seeking an independent review to getting a second opinion after a medical diagnosis. She said the judges want to feel comfortable that their staffs and the public will not be in danger. However, she also said the judges must get all the facts and understand the remediation plan – and the science and data it is based upon – rather than letting fear dictate their actions.

“If you have challenging issues to address and you try to do that without all the information, that typically doesn’t turn out well,” she said.

According to Steven Wanner, licensed professional geologist and principal at GHD, the environmental firm hired by the city to consult on the justice center project, the remediation calls for the “unsuitable soil” to be removed and replaced with a layer of clay to act as a barrier between the contaminants in the ground and the people. In addition, a vapor exhaust system will exhaust any harmful substances in the air inside the courthouse to the outside above the roof.

Based on the findings of ATC, the courts have asked the city for more information about the remediation and that additional sampling be done. Also, the courts have asked ATC to provide some toxicological information.

The additional facts and details will be compiled by ATC into a supplemental report, which Welch estimated could be completed by late summer or early fall.

“We have to get all questions answered, have a good working knowledge of the information, then defer to our experts’ opinion, based on research and data, that there is no unreasonable risk to human health and safety,” Welch said.

For more on this story, see the May 29 edition of Indiana Lawyer.

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