TOWN OF PINES, Indiana- Cruising around Lake Michigan in his small fishing boat, Alex Firov fell in love with the Indiana Dunes and the views from the Town of Pines. Initially, he planned to buy a vacation home, a small place to use as a getaway from his fulltime residence in nearby Chicago. But he found a property he liked so much, he moved his wife and two children there permanently.
The house, more than 100 years old, sat on a former farm overgrown with weeds and overrun with wild animals. The previous owner had died more than a decade earlier.
Firov assured his wife, a cancer survivor, that he would remodel the property and turn it into their dream home, complete with a vegetable garden that would provide produce for their family and for the Firovs’ organic food store in Chicago. A large pond would serve as an excellent water source for the garden.
But Firov, who lived near Chernobyl in Ukraine when a nuclear reactor there exploded in 1986, wasn’t aware of a crucial fact: Coal ash from a nearby power plant had been used as fill all around the farm in the 1970s, contaminating the soil with arsenic and making it potentially dangerous to eat food grown there.
Only after the property sale was finalized did Firov discover what no one had told him. Now, he is unable to begin renovations until the soil had been remediated by the EPA, a process that’s been going on for the past three years.
“I try to escape from a contaminated site, have a family, find a beautiful place to live and now the soil and water are contaminated,” Firov said. “I came here to plant a little family tree, an organic family tree. I’ve put so much blood and sweat into this already, I won’t stop fighting until it’s done correctly.”
A nuclear disaster survivor
Firov is not afraid of fighting to get his property cleaned. This isn’t the first time he has had to deal with an environmental disaster.
“I’m a survivor and I always get myself out of trouble,” he said.
Firov grew up 80 kilometers from Chernobyl and remembers the day of the nuclear power plant disaster there in 1986.
“People started screaming. We came out of our house and watched as the very sunny day get darker and darker like night,” he said. “We thought the world was ending.”
Firov joined the Russian Army as a teenager, then joined the Special Police Force, where he guarded the perimeter at Chernobyl for five years, 30 kilometers from the explosion site.
“We would work in 15-day cycles, where you live and work there, and then for 15 days you stay home,” he said. “They would check us all the time for radiation, and if we tested for high levels, we were sent to a clinic for medications. Then they would retest, and if we were clear, back to work.”
He left for the U.S. in 1999, working several jobs from construction to truck driving, before working as a project manager and air monitor in asbestos and mold removal. Originally, he was going to work hard, save money and return home. But he met his wife, Lucy, and began a family in Chicago.
Before their children were born, Lucy had kidney cancer. While she was going through treatment, the Firovs ate only organic food. Alex Firov believes that healthy diet helped Lucy survive. After she beat her cancer, they decided to open an organic food store.
While searching for a property in Pines, Firov decided to look for a home that had some land where he could grow organic produce for his family and the store.
He found what he thought was the perfect spot, with rich black dirt and a water source on the property.
“I have my own pond, my garden is right around the pond,” he said. “That's perfect for a farmer.”
Indeed, the property had been a farm in the past. Firov found the previous name had been Old Farm, and it produced vegetables for the state prison in Michigan City.
There’s no indication the previous owners were aware of the contamination. The cleanup in Pines started after the owner died, and his children lived out of state.
No one else mentioned possible contamination to Firov. Although state law requires sellers to disclose “hazardous conditions,” such as methane, radioactive material, “toxic materials” and mold, there’s no clear requirement to inform buyers about solid waste contaminants, which includes arsenic.
“I renamed it Old Acre Farm and had this idea of growing the produce and selling it in my store,” Firov said. “But right now no one can give me a clear answer if I can grow organic stuff here, if it’s healthy or not because of this arsenic.”
Once Firov moved in, he noticed NIPSCO and EPA signs announcing an excavation posted in his neighbor’s yard. He called the number on the sign to ask what was being excavated and why. He then started researching and speaking to his neighbors about the history of the town.
What he discovered would turn his dream upside down.
The Town of Pines
For decades, the Northern Indiana Public Service Company deposited more than 1 million tons of potentially lethal sludge known as coal ash from its Michigan City Generating Station in the Yard 520 landfill, located in the Town of Pines. The landfill sits on top of the town’s aquifer, for many years the residents’ only source of drinking water.
Coal ash is the waste product that’s left over from burning coal for electricity.
“Unfortunately, coal has trace bits of heavy metals in it, and when you burn the coal, you burn off most of the carbon, so those trace metals wind up in higher concentration in the ash that’s left over,” said Dr. Indra Frank, director of environmental health and water policy for the Hoosier Environmental Council.
These metals include lead, mercury, boron, molybdenum, cadmium and arsenic, all of which can all be hazardous to human health.
Indiana currently has more coal ash waste than any other state, at an estimated 60 million cubic yards. In other words, that’s 86 football fields of sludge containing mercury, arsenic, lead, among other lethal substances.
In 2000, a Pines resident asked the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to test her sulfurous well water. The test would reveal the water was contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen.
That discovery prompted a lengthy and contentious process between the residents, NIPSCO and the Environmental Protection Agency as to who was responsible for the contamination and subsequent clean up.
In 2002, the EPA named the Yard 520 site a Superfund Alternative Approach Site. Under the settlement agreement, NIPSCO was ordered to provide alternate drinking water for the residents, oversee the cleanup and pay for any associated costs.
Most homes in the remediation area, including the property Firov bought, were connected to municipal water as a result of the cleanup. Residents then discovered a second problem. Coal ash had been used in the 1970s as fill in road construction, on low-lying properties and even on the town’s playground.
At the time, the Indiana Department of Health assured residents the ash did not pose a health risk. Subsequent testing, prompted by residents’ concerns after the water contamination came to light, proved that assertion wrong.
An independent test found radiation in coal ash fill around the community. The EPA disputed the finding. Its own tests found no radiation, but did find higher-than-normal levels of arsenic. It began removing arsenic from the soil in Pines in 2016.
The discrepancy in the test results would prove crucial to the overall cleanup and to Firov’s property.
The EPA classifies radiation as hazardous waste, subject to stringent and costly cleanup standards. Arsenic is classified as a solid waste contaminant. It must be removed, but the cleanup process is less thorough, and cheaper.
Tricia Lynn, a spokesperson for the EPA in Washington, D.C., said coal ash is considered a solid rather than hazardous waste because it is approved for use in construction in certain forms.
Earthjustice senior attorney Lisa Evans, who helped Pines residents in their fight with NIPSCO and the EPA, said that decision is political. She said coal ash does, in fact, meet the scientific criteria established by the EPA for classification as hazardous waste.
“The truth is that EPA was under tremendous pressure by lobbyists from the utility industry to avoid a hazardous waste listing, because such a listing could potentially increase the costs of disposal of the waste as well as increase the power plant's liability,” she said.
A study from Duke University by Professor Avener Vengosh in 2015 found “levels of radioactivity in the ash were up to five times higher than in normal soil, and up to 10 times higher than in the parent coal itself because of the way combustion concentrates radioactivity.”
The issue is the fact that coal does contain uranium and thorium, both radioactive elements.
“Because of the tiny size of the fly ash particles, they are much more likely to be suspended in air if they are disposed in a dry form,” said Nancy Lauer, a Ph.D. student in Vengosh’s lab who was lead author of the study. “People breathing this air may face increased risks, particularly since tiny particles tend to be more enriched in radioactivity.
"Protecting human health and the
environment is vital"
Currently, coal ash disposal sites are not monitored for radioactivity, Vengosh said, “so we don’t know how much of these contaminants are released to the environment, and how they might affect human health in areas where coal ash ponds and landfills are leaking. Our study opens the door for future evaluation of this potential risk.”
Nick Meyer, spokesperson for NIPSCO, told the Indiana Environmental Reporter that the agency had soil samples taken on more than 170 properties in Pines, with 20 properties requiring varying levels of soil removal because of arsenic contamination. He said work on all but two properties was complete, including the Firovs’.
He added that NIPSCO will start shutting down the five coal ash ponds in Michigan City starting in 2020. Assessment and monitoring with IDEM oversight will determine if any further steps should be taken to address groundwater problems.
“Protecting human health and the environment is vital, and NIPSCO would not support approaches that could be detrimental to either,” he said.
Trying to find the right information
Firov had never heard of coal ash before buying his home. But when he contacted the EPA and NIPSCO, they told him his property, too, would need to be tested and excavated.
In 2016 the agencies took soil samples from various spots on Firov’s land, determined the excavation area with Firov’s agreement, and then fenced off that area. They also tested his pond and determined it was not contaminated.
This summer, the EPA began excavating the property, three years after Firov’s purchase. During that time, his plans have been in limbo. The excavation prevents him from getting the necessary permits to start construction. Until the land is remediated, he can’t legally do anything.
Meanwhile, the family has been living in a trailer on the other side of the property. Firov
built a large deck and set up an outdoor kitchen and screened porch. He also built a large fenced area for several dozen chickens and a space for his two dogs, set up a greenhouse near the pond, and planted fruit trees and vegetables.
“Even after the excavation began, I’m still researching about coal ash and I learn ash is like tea in hot water,” Firov said. “It’s leaching and it’s going everywhere. Which is why I get more cautious about my pond and start asking more questions.”
When the soil removal and excavation began, Firov noticed his pond water was starting to turn a darker brown color.
Just as the more extensive digging began, it rained for several days, causing a large amount of water to collect in the contaminated area. Only a chain link fence and a few hay bales separated the pooling water from the pond.
Firov became concerned the water from the excavation was running into the pond.
“The workers were pumping the water out so they would be able to continue to work,” he said. “However, they pump it up to the corner of my property that has the highest amount of arsenic in it, and they know this. The water just filtered through and ran down to my pond.”
He took a video of the pumping and sent the file to NIPSCO, EPA and IDEM. He didn’t hear back.
The EPA told the Indiana Environmental Reporter it was unaware of any remedial action causing coal ash contamination of the pond. The responsible parties conducting soil cleanups are required to take measures to prevent something like this from happening, it said.
"I want them to do as much as possible, but I still have a question about the rest of my property."
“I want them to do as much as possible, but I still have a question about the rest of my property,” Firov said. “My pond, I use the water for my garden. My dogs drink from it. Now I have a question about the soil around it.”
When Firov received no response to his video, he took samples of the pond water and he asked the EPA and NIPSCO to also take samples and test them, which they did. They said the results were not over the limit for any contaminants.
Firov sent the additional samples to a private lab for testing, and forwarded the results and documentation about the cleanup to Dr. Indra Frank.
Frank found there were some areas to the east of Firov’s pond, outside the excavation area, that did have arsenic levels higher than the state of Indiana considers safe for residential areas.
“Then in the pond itself, the water has high levels of arsenic and manganese,” Frank said. “The arsenic levels are more than nine times what’s allowed in drinking water. So, my recommendations to Alex were to not use the pond water for drinking water either for humans or animals, and he probably shouldn’t use it for irrigating vegetables.”
Frank also advised him to not garden or to allow his children to play even in areas that aren’t being excavated. She said the arsenic levels aren’t high enough to cause immediate problems, but they could result in adverse effects over time.
“For example, if you were drinking the water in that pond, you would be at a much higher risk for developing cancer down the road, in five or 10 years’ time, and the same with the soil,” she said.
Frank said the EPA told her the arsenic level in the soil outside of the remediation area is high, but doesn’t meet the threshold for a cleanup in Pines. The EPA bases its cleanup standards on background levels of substances naturally occurring in the soil in a given area.
The residential safe threshold for arsenic in the soil in Indiana is 9.4 milligrams per kilogram. To determine the level of arsenic for cleanup in Pines, the EPA took several soil samples around the town and set the limit at the highest tested sample, at 30.1 milligrams per kilogram.
"Alex, in that area, has soil with 25 to 26 milligrams per kilogram of arsenic."
“Alex, in that area, has soil with 25 to 26 milligrams per kilogram,” Frank explained. “So, it's several times the residential safe level, but it hasn't met the threshold for this particular cleanup, even though 9.4 is considered the risk screening level.”
Frank also asked the EPA about contamination in the pond.
“The answer I got from the EPA was that when they were planning the cleanup for the Town of Pines, the ponds closest to the landfill were sampled and they were considered to have safe levels of arsenic,” she said. “They determined from this that ponds were not going be part of the clean-up. I think during that planning process, they did not sample Mr. Firov’s pond.”
The EPA said since it already had an approved cleanup plan, it wouldn’t make any modifications. It suggested Firov contact the Indiana Department of Environmental Management for assistance.
IDEM spokesperson Barry Sneed said the groundwater monitoring and soil removal activities in the Town of Pines are overseen by the EPA, with IDEM acting in a supporting role.
“Surface water data associated with this pond that was collected by the land owner and the contractor working for NIPSCO, then shared with IDEM, has not indicated any exceedances of applicable surface water screening levels,” Sneed said. “Drinking water standards are not considered applicable screening levels for pond water results.”
Sneed went on to say that IDEM is fully committed to ensuring and protecting the safety of Hoosiers’ drinking water supply. In instances where there is known or potential exposure to coal ash in public or private drinking wells, IDEM works with the Indiana State Department of Health to communicate with citizens and coordinate appropriate responses.
"I don't know the right answer, and nobody will answer me."
The EPA told the Indiana Environmental Reporter that because of the findings in the remedial investigation report, EPA is not requiring that any surface waters be cleaned up at the Firov property, and that even if surface waters were being addressed, they would not require a cleanup of surface water to drinking water standards.
Firov said he’s still concerned about the pond water.
“I don't know the right answer, and nobody will answer me,” he said. “They try telling me, you're okay, you're good, you're fine. But they still won’t answer my questions about the soil and the water.”
Old Acre Farm
Firov said these past three years have put his family under a lot of stress. He feels guilty about not being able to fulfill the promise of a new home. But he says his family supports him.
Frank is continuing to help Firov and has spoken to an environmental lawyer in hopes of bringing legal action to help his property get cleaned. However, Firov is growing frustrated by the length of time the process has dragged on and the fact there don’t seem to be any answers forthcoming from the EPA or NIPSCO.
Regulation changes proposed recently by the EPA might have a negative impact on Firov’s quest to have his property decontaminated. A proposal to modify the 2015 Coal Combustion Residual disposal rules would allow for a broader use of coal ash.
“Their agenda is clearly to propose and then finalize weakening amendments to the existing regulations before 2020, so there's no possibility that things will be undone."
“These actions were triggered by court rulings and petitions for reconsideration on two 2015 rules that placed heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country,” EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. “We are proposing both at the same time in order to provide more certainty to the American public. These proposed revisions support the Trump Administration’s commitment to responsible, reasonable regulations by taking a commonsense approach, which also protects public health and the environment.”
Earthjustice attorney Evans, who has been working on coal ash cases for decades, says she hasn’t seen such focused activity on one issue by an administration before.
“Their agenda is clearly to propose and then finalize weakening amendments to the existing regulations before 2020, so there's no possibility that things will be undone if we're fortunate to have Trump leave office,” she said. “This is a very rushed agenda. It's a very pointed and purposeful agenda to provide as much relief to the coal industry as the administration can before the next election.”
Evans said she’s not surprised the EPA is following the coal industry agenda, especially given that the agency is headed by Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist.
“The coal industry and utility industry have made it very, very clear what they wanted,” she said. “They want this relief because it affects the bottom line, even though it might be small, in terms of a huge profits that are made by the utility industry.”
Firov said he will continue to fight and would just like his entire property to be cleaned for the safety of his family.
“My animals, my kids, my garden we are all eating and drinking here,” he said. “We’re working this land, and I don’t know what that could do to us.
“I love this property, and I won’t sell it. I just want this to be cleaned up and done the right way, that’s all I’m asking for.”