Northwest Indiana residents grapple with implications of dead swans

By Lauren Robinson
Medill Reports

Northwest Indiana is a region of many small refuges. For its human occupants, that might be a quiet spot on Whihala Beach facing north, toward Chicago’s glimmering skyline. For wildlife, that might be a bird sanctuary by a casino in Hammond — or perhaps a discharge of warm water from a British Petroleum plant into an otherwise frozen Lake Michigan. The oil refinery, like the ArcelorMittal steel factory and Whiting Metals, spans hundreds of acres of real estate in the area, and its machinery stretches into the sky, a metallic forest visible from afar.

Carolyn Marsh, who is my tour guide on a cold, gray weekday in February, is no longer naive about the competing realities of the natural world and industry. When she moved to Whiting in the 1980s, she had her eyes fixed northward, from that refuge on Whihala Beach that factored into her decision to buy a home here. “I did not know how bad the pollution would be,” she says. “Nobody talked about it because there were jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs.”

The reason for my visit to Northwest Indiana is a somber one. From September to December, passers-by found more than 30 mute swan carcasses, a handful of which had elevated lead levels in their kidneys, around George Lake on the town’s southern border. The state’s Department of Natural Resources reported that the six swans the researchers tested also had lesions associated with parasitism, but the lead findings in particular have raised questions about the health risks for the lake’s inhabitants and neighbors — human and otherwise.

Before Marsh and I make our way to the lake, we pass through downtown Whiting, a small stretch of 119th Street populated by a movie theater, a few restaurants and a CVS about a half-mile from the lake. We make a brief stop at Lakefront Park, which Marsh notes looks nice because of recent renovations but for which city planners failed to take into consideration the lake’s tendency to flood beyond the park’s boundaries. And we marvel at the brand-new Mascot Hall of Fame, a children’s museum only steps from the BP refinery.

It makes sense that Marsh, who is fairly tall and wears modest black-rimmed glasses, is my guide. Many years ago, the now-75-year-old was one of thousands of people with a good-paying job in the steel mills, but she retired early after being laid off in the 1980s. After being introduced to birding, she learned of environmental activism, and she became a full-time conservationist. She embedded herself in several fights for birds and the environment in the ensuing decades, earning her a fair amount of attention in the local news media and making her comfortable around the press.

Finally, we near the lake. “That’s the landfill,” Marsh informs me as we weave our way through residential roads to an access point, her chin poking over a swan-patterned scarf. She’s referring to a landfill once used by Federated Metals, which formerly operated on the northwest corner of the lake and left behind a legacy of contamination. The landfill is part of an EPA-designated Superfund site that includes a former steel smelter and has prompted soil testing and excavation at a few nearby properties.

Some residents already were concerned about the landfill leaching into the lake, and adding to their worries is the latest company to occupy the site, Whiting Metals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Indiana Department of Environmental Management cited that company for breaching lead emission limits last fall.

George Lake lies just east of Wolf Lake, which straddles the Illinois border. The marshy region that falls within the city boundary of Hammond is heavily trafficked by migratory songbirds, and it is part of an Audubon-designated Important Bird Area. But the mute swans, a species introduced from Europe in the 1800s, are not migratory, so all year round they depend upon the lake habitat for food, shelter and breeding. At George Lake, they primarily eat aquatic vegetation that grows out of the sediment.

In late summer and fall, as many as 50 swans call the lake home, says Hammond resident Bob Lukacsek, who has joined us. “I’m out here just about every day,” the 59-year-old says. Along with his teen-aged daughter, Lukacsek discovered many of the swans’ carcasses last year. After living and working in the industrial corridor for more than 50 years, he is no stranger to pollution, but he says the swans’ deaths left him curious about what lies at the bottom of the lake.

“If something came out of the air, discharged from Whiting Metals, or if there’s been leakage coming out of that contaminated area that the EPA closed off, it’s probably floating out to those sediments, right where the swans are at,” Lukacsek says.

While we chat, five swans congregate at the center of the lake, maybe a few hundred feet from us. When I look toward them through Marsh’s spotting scope, they are eerily still. That’s because they’re sleeping, she explains. I can’t help but worry for them — and, by extension, the residents of Hammond and Whiting. If the swans, who feed at the lake, are at risk for lead exposure, so, too, might be the people whose homes sit upon nearby plots. No amount of lead exposure is safe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and children are especially vulnerable.

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LEAD IS RELEASED into the air as part of the steel-production process, which was once prevalent in this industrial region but that these days is carried out by only a few factories. Whiting Metals, which overlooks the northeast corner of George Lake, doesn’t produce steel — but it does process it. That can result in lead emissions, but co-owner Jeffrey Condon tells me they are miniscule.

Whiting Metals is only the latest company to occupy the space; for nearly half a century, Federated Metals operated a smelter and refinery there, according to the EPA. After Federated Metals sold part of the facility in 1985, several companies used the space. A federal cleanup began in 2001, but in 2005, Federated Metals’ parent company declared bankruptcy and abandoned the site before finishing the cleanup. In 2007, Condon and co-owner Alex Gross bought the former manufacturing building, out of which they run Whiting Metals.

Any outstanding pollution is likely left over from Federated Metals, Condon says. “I cleaned my property, which is the front half of the old Federated Metals plant, and mine’s pristine.”

The EPA and IDEM cited Whiting Metals in November for emitting lead over established limits and, more recently, linked the facility to elevated levels of cadmium, another toxic metal that can cause cancer. Condon has denied responsibility for the excess emissions. “I think they were under enormous political pressure” to pin the blame on someone, he tells me. EPA and IDEM should look into BP Refinery, ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel — other industrial powerhouses in the region — rather than his Whiting Metals, which he says emits a fraction of the amount of lead emitted by the other giants.

“It’s scrap recycling at very low temperatures,” not a smelter that would emit much larger quantities of the toxic metal, he says of Whiting Metals’ operations. In fact, he says, he would love to see the area — including the sediment at the bottom of George Lake — cleaned up. “The area is historically damaged,” he says.

The EPA hasn’t tested the sediment lining the lake, even though it discovered lead exceeding federal limits near the former Federated Metals site in 2017, leading to the cleanup of 28 properties. Some Indianans argue that, after the swans’ deaths, it’s time to take that step. “It seems like nobody wants to do that,” Lukacsek tells me later, by phone. “That, to me, is the key.”

Lukacsek, who spends a lot of time along a bike path that encircles the lake, says he often sees the swans splashing around in the middle of the lake. They might fly to other places nearby to feed while George Lake is frozen, but otherwise they spend all of their time at George Lake. He laments that the sediment hasn’t been tested and that the cause of the swans’ deaths couldn’t be determined. “You hate to see any kind of wildlife dying like that,” he says.

The sediment at the bottom of the lake tested positive for arsenic and mercury in the late 1970s, the Munster Times reported then, according to the Indiana Historical Bureau’s Indiana History Blog, though it isn’t clear what entity conducted that testing. The Department of Environmental Management took samples from George Lake in the mid-1980s, after the EPA ordered Federated Metals to dredge 100 feet of the north basin to remove lead slag it had dumped into the lake, spokesman Ryan Clem said in an email.

The last time IDEM sampled the lake sediment was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Clem said. At the time, the city of Hammond was dredging slag from the south basin, and on top of that slag Hammond officials built the Lost Marsh Golf Course. Clem said IDEM “will continue to evaluate whether further sediment sampling is required.”

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A BIRD DIE-OFF at George Lake drew even less attention in 2005, perhaps because the cause in that case was more definitive — and had little bearing on human health. The culprit was avian botulism, possibly the result of the swans feeding on decaying vegetation at the landfill. In that case, according to an article by Marsh in the Indiana Audubon Quarterly, more than 40 shorebird and mallard carcasses washed ashore.

As for lead, birds of prey are known to encounter lead from scavenging for hunted animals like deer. Bald eagles, for example, have been known to ingest lead from fragmented bullets or shot, despite a 1991 federal ban on lead ammunitions. Waterfowl are prone to lead poisoning after ingesting lead sinker material and lead shot left by fishermen: In fall 2011, several conservation groups in northwest Washington and in the Vancouver area reported that dozens of swans, mostly trumpeters, had died from lead poisoning after ingesting ammunition.

Lead exposure to birds resulting from mining and smelting is not unheard of. Retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist Nelson Beyer’s research spanning three decades focused on birds’ exposure to toxic metals. In 2000, he co-wrote a study showing how the concentration of lead in river sediment corresponded to the declining health of waterfowl species in the Coeur d’Alene River Basin in Idaho. That study tracked the mortality rates of lead ingestion by tundra swans, Canada geese and mallards — and mute swans.

Beyer said in an email that the sediment would have to be extremely contaminated to cause death. And, he said, “If lead killed the birds, it is very likely that more carcasses will show up.” He urged caution in the aftermath of the mute swans’ deaths at George Lake. “At this point, I think it would be wrong to suggest that lead poisoning is likely or that residents should be concerned.”

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the DNR supplied Medill Reports with a copy of its report concerning the swans it tested. The report gave a reference range for lead toxicity in the swans’ kidneys as 8 to 992 parts per million. Aside from one kidney testing at 7.21 ppm, the lead concentrations ranged from 10.63 to 15.76 ppm.

“Overall, we can conclude that the swans were exposed to higher than normal concentrations of lead in the environment,” Beyer said after reviewing the report. But, he said, the amounts don’t seem to suggest that the swans encountered enough lead to kill them.

John Bates, an ornithologist at Chicago’s Field Museum, says that because of the history of lead pollution around George Lake, it was reasonable to assume the swans had higher than average lead levels and that that “wouldn’t be all that good for them.” But at the same time, he says, why the sudden die-off? Why now?

“Sometimes things in the environment actually respond more quickly than humans do,” Bates says, calling to mind the canary-in-the-coal-mine practice that inspired the metaphor. “So I absolutely think people should be concerned about knowing what killed those swans.”

Still, he cautioned, it may not have been lead. What needs to happen, he says, is “an awful lot of testing.”

Marsh rejected that the DNR report proved parasitism caused the swans’ deaths or that it exonerated anybody. She maintained that any amount of lead is cause for concern: “Where is this lead coming from?” she asks.

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MARISA ROWDEN of Whiting, worried about the effects of lead pollution on her own health, decided she wouldn’t wait for government agencies to test the soil in her yard. She says she was worried about lead levels in her vegetable garden, for which she has often enlisted the help of her two young grandchildren. The soil test she ordered through Amazon.com showed lead results of 323 parts per million on one side of her yard, just short of EPA’s limit of 400 for places where children play. She says she isn’t comfortable with that result — especially because of her gardening.

“We have a cherry tree in the front, we grow peppers and tomatoes and broccoli — things that I don’t want GMOs in, and I’m getting lead,” she says, laughing. “You can’t win.”

Rowden grew up in Whiting but lived in Florida from 1997 to 2010. Because of her long absence, Rowden says she defers to the knowledge of longtime area activists like Marsh. But spurred by the deaths of the swans, and out of concern for her grandchildren, she created the Save Whiting and Neighbors (SWAN) group, which held its second meeting in early February. Rowden says the group’s first order of business is targeting air pollution — and demanding accountability for it.

Another key concern, she says, is what she described as the lack of communication between government officials and residents about potentially harmful emissions findings. She recalled that in April 2018, Gov. Eric Holcomb and then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt met secretly then later informed the public of the $1.7 million lead-cleanup action at the former Federated Metals site. The data backing up that determination was from years earlier, she says, but residents were inadequately informed of it.

“We’re being kept in the dark,” Rowden says. “And it’s a health issue. It’s a very important health issue.”

Marsh, too, is trying to get to the root of the swans’ deaths and the repercussions for the people and other wildlife in the area. A few weeks after she showed me around town, she found herself at the end of a conference table in East Chicago, at a citizens-advisory meeting hosted by IDEM. After quietly taking notes through nearly two hours of updates on various environmental projects, Marsh was invited to share her concerns with the representatives from IDEM, DNR and other entities.

First, she called for a more resolute response to the swans’ die-off, arguing that whether or not lead poisoning was to blame, the phenomenon was a “red flag.” Second, she requested a public session specific to to the issues at George Lake — “the sooner the better.”

Touching on the enduring pollution in the area, she told the group, “Our community is inundated with problems, and we need answers and we need a cleanup.”

Photo at top: Hammond resident Bob Lukacsek, who found several dead swans along the shores of George Lake, chats with conservationist Carolyn Marsh on a February afternoon. Whiting Metals, which was cited for lead emissions in the fall, overlooks the lake behind them. (Lauren Robinson/MEDILL)