Neighbors unhappy with updated remediation plan for former Johnson Controls property

A group of concerned residents and community leaders gather at the Goshen Public Library Tuesday to share comments and concerns about an updated environmental remediation plan for the former Johnson Controls property on the city’s southeast side.

GOSHEN — An updated environmental remediation plan has been created for the former Johnson Controls property on the city’s southeast side, and neighbors of the site aren’t particularly happy with what that new plan entails.

About 15 of those neighbors elected to share their concerns during a public hearing hosted by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management Tuesday at the Goshen Public Library.

According to John Osborne, principal hydrogeologist with GZA GeoEnvironmental Inc., the consulting firm that has been working with Johnson Controls Inc. on its groundwater pollution remediation efforts at the site, JCI recently volunteered to conduct additional remediation work at the site at the behest of GZA, and thus IDEM required a revised Remedial Work Plan, or RWP, to be created.

The need for that revised RWP, according to IDEM, was due to the fact that while prior remediation efforts have taken place at the site since about 1991, chlorinated volatile organic compounds exceeding permitted levels for drinking water and vapor intrusion have continued to travel off-site in recent years.

As such, IDEM has been working with JCI to complete a revised RWP that builds upon previous remediation efforts at the site.

According to attorney Andrew Skroback, who has been working with JCI throughout the remediation process, Tuesday’s hearing was held in order to allow IDEM to take additional comments and questions from the public regarding the updated RWP before the department decides whether or not to sign off on the plan.

“GZA submitted a revised Remedial Work Plan to IDEM a few months ago, which responds to additional requests from IDEM following that initial public comment process,” Skroback said of the plan, noting that IDEM had already given GZA its initial technical approval of the revised RWP last summer before putting the plan out for public comment. “IDEM then published the revised Remedial Work Plan last month to solicit additional written comments from the public. In addition, IDEM offered this public hearing so the public will have the opportunity to comment or submit questions.”

Prior to Tuesday’s public hearing, Osborne provided attendees with a brief overview of the remediation completed at the site to date as well as the additional work detailed in GZA’s revised RWP.

A related Goshen News story about Osborne’s presentation can be found here:

HISTORY OF CONTAMINATION

According to IDEM, the 13.5-acre site was historically owned by the Penn Electric Switch Co., who in 1937 initiated construction of the site’s main facility and began manufacturing a variety of control devices as a supplier to other equipment manufacturers.

Penn’s component manufacturing eventually included operational devices for the heating and air-conditioning industry, including JCI, which lead to JCI’s acquisition of Penn in the early 1970s.

JCI continued to operate the factory until 2007, when it sold the property to TOCON Holdings, the site’s current owner. TOCON briefly operated a gel coating and fiberglassing plant at the site until going out of business shortly after the recession hit in 2008.

According to Osborne, both Penn and Johnson Controls had used a common industrial chemical called trichloroethylene (TCE) to degrease metal parts at the facility. The chemical, the use of which was discontinued in 1998, has since been characterized as carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Back in 1991, Osborne noted that Johnson Controls discovered TCE contamination in soil and groundwater at the plant property, and in 1992 the company traced the TCE to groundwater flowing off-site to the west.

According to IDEM, while TOCON remains the current owner of the site, JCI has agreed to continue working with IDEM under the department’s Voluntary Remediation Program, or VRP, to carry on the investigation and remediation of historical impacts related to its former manufacturing activities on the site.

“The purpose of this public hearing is to receive oral or written comments on the question of whether IDEM should approve or reject the amended Remediation Work Plan for the former Johnson Controls facility,” IDEM attorney April Lashbrook said in beginning Tuesday’s hearing. “IDEM gave technical approval to the amended RWP on Nov. 19, 2018, and during the public comment period IDEM received written comments and a request for this public hearing. So, in response to those comments, IDEM did ask Johnson Controls to make revisions to that amended RWP, which they did do, and which was submitted to IDEM in April. So we have extended that public comment period through 10 days from tonight, Sept. 19, 2019, to make sure that everyone who is here tonight ... has another few days to submit any comments to us. We will not be responding to comments during this hearing, because this is our opportunity to hear from you.”

NOT FAR ENOUGH

Of the people who chose to speak during Tuesday’s public hearing, most of whom live in a residential neighborhood abutting the former JCI site, all of them indicated that they felt the revised RWP does not go far enough to address the ongoing contamination issues.

“I live right there. It sounds like you’re stirring up trouble, moving contamination from one place to another,” Richard Ambrosen said of the revised plan. “Stirring it all up doesn’t seem like a great idea to me. We don’t need a Band-Aid. We need a fix.”

Fellow neighbor Jeff Chupp agreed, noting that anything less than 100% remediation at the site is unacceptable.

“My family and I have lived here for only seven years in this area, but we have pets, and the people around us that have done everything they could to survive,” Chupp said of the situation. “This business has not done enough in order to clean everything up. They need to do more. People have put their livelihoods into this neighborhood, people who have lived here 15, 20, maybe 30 years or more, and now Johnson Controls wants to say ‘Oh, we’ve done enough.’ No, they have not done enough. They need to do more. Contaminants are in the ground, contaminants are in the water, and the sewer. It’s coming up through our home. If they can’t clean it up 100%, they don’t care about the people in this neighborhood.”

For Tamra Bulva, who has lived in the nearby neighborhood since 2002, her concerns about the revised RWP aren’t so much about herself, but about the potential impact to her family.

“I got custody of my grandson at 2 years old, and I thought that the best place for him was with me, his grandmother, and then I get all this,” Bulva said of the contamination reports. “I don’t know what it’s going to do to him, and the guilt I feel and live is tremendous. I’m terrified. I want them to clean it up. We deserve it. It’s been years. They knew about it, and it is way too long. It needs to be 100% so no one has to live like this.”

Debbie Hostetler also expressed concerns about what the site’s contamination might mean for her grandchildren down the line.

“I’ve lived in the area for 10 years, had several grandkids, new ones born that would stay at my house a lot. I have the worries of not knowing what’s going to happen to them as they get older from all these chemicals,” Hostetler said of the site. “Johnson Control can dig up some dirt, they can move some cement, but they can’t take away all of the damage they’ve already done to our bodies with the chemicals. I think we deserve as a community to have this cleaned up proper and cleaned up right, no matter what it’s going to cost Johnson Control. We need a safe place to live. Our grand-babies need a safe place to visit. It should be a safe place. It needs to be done proper and right.”

John Kline can be reached at john.kline@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 315. Follow John on Twitter @jkline_TGN.

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