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Professor, students fight for cleaner air

Photo by: Zachary D. Elick

Photo credit: by Zachary D. Elick

Photo by: Zachary D. Elick
Written by: Communicator StaffMay 05, 2017

Written by: Zachary D. Elick

In 2011, residents of Blackford County, Ind., found out that their small community of around 13,000 people had a huge problem.

The county, which is about an hour south of Fort Wayne, has one of the highest cancer rates in the state of Indiana, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.

Data collected by the ISDH from 2008 to 2012 showed Blackford County’s age-adjusted cancer rate to be 514.7 cancers for every 100,000 persons. To put that number into perspective, the age-adjusted cancer rate for the entire state of Indiana is 484.5. The rate for the entire country is only 460.4, Environmental Health Director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, Indra Frank, said via email.

After getting this bad news, a small group of Blackford County residents formed an organization, Blackford County Concerned Citizens, to get to the bottom of their county’s health woes.

The group believed the high cancer rates may be the result of contamination left by abandoned industrial factories in the county’s largest town, Hartford City, said Eric Evans, the BCCC’s current president.

Hartford City experienced an industrial boom during the turn of the century, much of which has since faded away.

“Most of the old industry is abandoned at this point … a lot of the industry that was there 50 years ago, 25 years ago is gone,” Evans said. “Blackford County is probably far more economically depressed than a lot of similar cities around. And there has been a kind of exodus. The population has gone from, in the ’60s they had almost 10,000 (residents) living in Hartford City and now there’s about 6,000.”

Knowing they did not have the adequate tools or skills to advocate for their case, BCCC reached out to Frank and IPFW sociology professor Sherri Steiner in 2014, Evans said.

Steiner is a “community engaged scholar,” according to her IPFW website bio page, meaning she uses her background in sociology to try to better the quality of life of the community at large.

Since then, Steiner and her students have taken an active role in advocating for Blackford County’s public health concerns. They have done so as a part of a service learning project that has already spanned four semesters and the same amount of classes, all of which are related to environmental sociology, she said.

“(Steiner’s service learning project) is a very fascinating avenue of civic engagement and understanding,” said Elbert Starks, junior sociology major. “How, as sociologists, we have to figure out ways to coexist, and then using the perspectives we learn what are the problems that keep us making the same problems over and over and not really solving anything. It’s fascinating.”

Most recently, Steiner and the five students in her Environment and Society course took a trip down to Blackford County on Earth Day, April 22. They tested the air for contaminants surrounding the still-functioning scrapyard, Hartford Iron and Metal, and informed citizens living close by that their health may be at risk.

It was also important to the class to encourage the residents of Hartford City to take matters into their own hands. For this reason, the students passed around a survey gauging the residents’ interest in creating a neighborhood association.

Steiner decided to focus on Hartford Iron and Metal after she and her previous class tested the areas of Hartford City with a lot of past industrial activity a couple semesters ago.

“Water was tested and soil was tested, but they came up clear. So then we decided, why don’t we focus on one place that we know is polluting? Hartford Iron and Metal,” she said.

Hartford Iron and Metal was given a notice of violation by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management in 2006 for mishandling hazardous waste that resulted from its processing of vehicles and scrap metals. In 2009, the company entered into an Agreed Order with IDEM to clean up dangerous levels of PCBs and lead found on their facility. They also agreed to prevent PCB-contaminated stormwater from running off their site into the Hartford City’s storm drains.

Located at 711 W. Washington St., Hartford Iron and Metal is surrounded by residential areas.

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Photo by: Zachary D. Elick

PCBs, also known as polychlorinated Biphenyls, are man-made organic chemicals that are known carcinogens. They were banned from U.S. manufacturing in 1979 but are still present in many material and products made before the ban, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

“For a lot of good reasons, we don’t want PCBs making it into our rivers,” Hartford Iron and Metal attorney Mark Shere said over the phone. “That’s not to say that a puddle of the water that you do not want to go into the river — a puddle of it on the street — is necessarily an environmental issue … aside from (the fact that) you don’t want it to run down the drain.”

Cleanup efforts stemming from the Agreed Order have moved slowly, largely due to legal disputes between Hartford Iron and its insurance company, Valley Forge Insurance. The delays have resulted in additional violations being levied against the scrapyard.

In 2013,  Valley Forge paid a $189,500 fine posed by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency against Hartford Iron and Metal for illegally discharging PCB-contaminated water. The scrapyard was hit with a fine of $60,000 for a similar violation in 2016, this time from IDEM.

Hartford Iron and Metal is currently building a new water basin and treatment system across the street from their facility that, Shere said, will fix the contaminated stormwater issue once and for all.

However, PCBs and lead are not the only concerning chemicals on Hartford Iron and Metal’s site; soil samples done in 2010 as a part of the Agreed Order found alarming levels of arsenic, cadmium, PAHs and volatile organic compounds, Frank said over the phone.

“Those chemicals that were found to be high enough to exceed Indiana’s (soil contamination) standard are all toxic by themselves, but of course that toxicity doesn’t happen unless the chemicals come in contact with (a) person,” she said.

There are multiple ways that the chemicals on Hartford Iron and Metal’s site could potentially come into contact with people, Frank said. One way is through working on the site, which is not a big concern since employees of the scrapyard are are not likely to ingest dust. Another is through consuming contaminated stormwater or groundwater. Lastly, someone could consume fugitive dust that gets kicked up from the site and lands on their person and/or their property.

“We haven’t actually seen any of those routes come to fruition, except the fact that the dust blows off of (Hartford Iron and Metal) periodically,” she said. “So, fugitive dust has been a main route.”

There is evidence Hartford Iron and Metal has contaminated the groundwater underneath their facility, which happens to be moving in the direction of the city’s water supply. But, there is no evidence that the contaminants have traveled to that water supply, Frank said.

Joanna Bell, who has lived across the street from the scrapyard for about 30 years, said she has plenty of experience with dust from the facility.

“I’ve seen it, obviously for years, especially when it is super dry and that wind kicks, almost like a tornado …  it’s crazy how the dust flies out of (Hartford Iron and Metal).”

Bell said the dust often gets inside her house, which makes her worry about how it could be affecting herself and her four children.

“I would love to move away from this neighborhood. … This is my house, I grew up here, but it’s scary for my kids because I think about all the exposure I’ve had over 30 years of living here,” she said.

Shere said there is no evidence showing that harmful fugitive dust is traveling from the scrapyard to the surrounding neighborhood.

“This one especially seems to be one where, ‘What somebody sometimes thinks might be an issue’ gets transformed in the telling into: ‘This is an issue,’” Shere said.

Shere also said Hartford Iron and Metal plans to excavate all of the contaminates on the facility, which is the “way this concern gets fully resolved.”

Steiner said this would not resolve the concern because the dust is a result of the scrapyard’s ongoing activities that make a lot of dust, such as smashing vehicles.

Last year, Steiner and her students conducted free soil tests for about 10 residents who lived near Hartford Iron and Metal. Their test found a handful of properties with elevated levels of certain carcinogens, such as lead and PAHs, but they could not trace the source of the chemicals back to the scrapyard.

For this year’s trip, Steiner and her students decided to try a new approach. On April 21, the class collected samples of moss from one location downwind of Hartford Iron and Metal, one location upwind and a one far away that they knew was clean of contaminants.

When the samples get back from the lab sometime in early May, Steiner will analyze the data, looking for a possible pattern of contaminants that points to Hartford Iron and Metal as the source.

“If the moss has absorbed it, the humans have absorbed it,” Steiner said.

Not having enough money to do a case control study, Steiner and her class decided to go a less scientific route, switching from epidemiology to popular epidemiology.

“You shift to a popular epidemiology when you take on an activist mode,” she said.