15 Finds Out: Oil in the river

Oil frequently bubbles up in one section of the St. Mary's River.
Oil frequently bubbles up in one section of the St. Mary's River.

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – As Fort Wayne City Council members prepare to vote on a $500,000 riverfront development study contract, a potential challenge toward development is surfacing downtown.  Oil is seeping into the St. Mary’s River.  The possible challenge rises not because of the oil’s environmental impact, but the oil could negatively impact public perception toward the rivers.

On a typical summer evening, guests fill the seats at The Deck.  It’s an outdoor restaurant connected with Hall’s Gas House, overlooking the St. Mary’s River.

Guests like Kathy Wilson travel from as far as Ohio for a one-of-a-kind Fort Wayne experience.  Currently, The Deck has a monopoly on downtown riverfront dining.

“We wanted to be outside and we wanted to be on the river.  So that’s why we came here,” Wilson said.

But within the view, there’s an asterisk to the beauty.

The problem began in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  The Indiana Lighting Company, located on E. Superior Street, manufactured gas used to light street lamps.  The plant eventually closed, but in 1955, it became the historic Don Hall’s Gas House.

That was a time of limited environmental regulations.  The old plant left behind large tanks full of gas underground.  Over time, those have broken down and leaked a by-product called coal tar into not just the soil.

“It actually started to find its way into the river,” NIPSCO’s Larry Graham told NewsChannel 15 in 2009.

NIPSCO’s parent company left behind the mess, which means the gas company is responsible for it.  Leaders with the company said they voluntarily entered into an agreement to clean it up.

In 2009, crews removed tanks under the Hall’s parking lot, solidified soil with cement, and laid mats down on the riverbed to soak up the coal tar.

At the time Graham said, “Between the removal and the solidification of the soil, any remaining coal tar in the site is not going anywhere.”

But today, an oily sheen still bubbles up.  15 Finds Out uncovered that according to Jill Perillo, NIPSCO’s public affairs manager, the mats are working.  But Perillo said the coal tar has moved into the sand, finding a way around the mats and into the river.

“When we put the mats out there to kind of cap off the area, we didn’t cover the entire area,” Perillo said.  “It was very much a test situation.”

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) oversees the efforts.  William Holland has been the project manager for the St. Mary’s river project since 2006.  Holland said the coal tar is an isolated problem making a small environmental impact.

Still some think the oil could pose a risk to future riverfront development.

Dan Wire knows Fort Wayne rivers as good as anyone.  He’s the executive director of the Tri-State Watershed Alliance.  Wire agrees the oil is a minor issue when it comes to water quality, but that’s not the only factor that comes into play.

“Public perception is probably our biggest hurdle to overcome,” Wire said.   “[The oil] will reinforce some misconceptions that some individuals have.  ‘See there’s that river.  There’s that dirty oil-laden river.’”

“This isn’t the rivers.  It’s a very small, isolated area that’s connected directly to a manufacturing activity at that area,” Wire said.  “Will people seeing the oil sheen deter their interest to riverfront development?  That’s a good question.”

Back at The Deck, it would seem answers to that question are unanimous.

“There’s no odor.  There’s nothing to really detract from the use of the rivers,” said Dave McIntosh, who was eating at The Deck a couple days before it closed for the winter.  “The more they can enhance the rivers to make them user-friendly and available, I’m all for it.”

As the city works to clean up its rivers, IDEM wants NIPSCO to prove the environmental impact doesn’t get worse.

“I want them as part of their closure, to kind of look at it a little more, do a little more scientific assessment of what aquatic life there is upstream on the site, downstream, and what’s in the sediments,” Holland said.

Holland told 15 Finds Out the cleanup process so far has been short term and experimental.  NIPSCO will eventually have to find a long-term fix such as dredging the river or permanently capping off the coal tar.

The pocket of oil is one of dozens IDEM is trying to get rid of across Indiana.  Holland said the site near The Deck is one of the most noticeable.

IDEM map of former gas manufacturing sites:

See all the former gas manufacturing sites in Indiana.

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