For more than a century, an electric component manufacturing plant located in the heart of Peru, Indiana provided livelihoods for thousands of Hoosiers. Now, the plant is shuttered, and residents living near the Schneider Electric Square D facility are worried that toxic chemicals migrating from the facility could be affecting their health.
The plant manufactured electric switchgear and switchboard equipment until 2020, when parent company Schneider Electric USA laid off all employees and moved production out of state.
The company recently alerted town officials and residents living near the plant that harmful volatile organic compounds used at the facility in the past may have migrated beyond its fence line and affected local homes.
Documents the company provided to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management suggest Schneider Electric may have known that was happening for decades but told residents only after the company joined a state program that could help it avoid being sued for the contamination.
Now, Peru residents and city officials said they want Schneider Electric to tell residents the true extent of the contamination and to clean up the site properly.
“Ethically and morally, they have burned the city of Peru in a bad way. They have killed part of our city,” said Peru City Councilor Kathleen Plothow. “I think it needs to be cleaned up, and we need to see some accountability. If there needs to be a Superfund, let’s do it, but quit hiding behind this data and deal with it.”
A large plume of the cancer-causing chemical trichloroethylene, also known as TCE, was detected recently in the soil of the former Schneider Electric Square D plant. TCE, along with the toxic compounds cis-1,2-dichloroethene and vinyl chloride, were also found in ground water outside the southeast side of the plant site.
TCE has been found to cause kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and heart defects.
Cis-1,2-dichloroethene can decrease the number of red blood cells in the body and cause some liver damage. Cis-1,2-dichloroethene breaks down into a more toxic volatile organic compound called vinyl chloride.
Vinyl chloride is linked to an increased risk of developing liver, brain and lung cancers, lymphoma and leukemia. The chemical was recently in the news after thousands of East Palestine, Ohio residents had to evacuate their town after a train carrying five cars of vinyl chloride derailed.
At least one of the chemicals found at the site has been found in residences beyond the fence line.
Testing at one residence just outside the plant site in October 2022 detected TCE inside and under the home. TCE was found in the home’s basement, crawl space and in the soil beneath the home at levels beyond what Indiana Department of Environmental Management considers safe for human health.
TCE was found inside another residence about 100 feet east of the plant property line in January, and Schneider Electric is looking to test at least nine other homes near the plant boundary for the chemicals.
HOW MUCH DID THEY KNOW?
Schneider Electric told Peru city officials the presence of chemicals was due to “historical practices” at the site prior to Schneider Electric’s acquisition of Square D.
In a letter to city officials, the company said investigations by an independent firm found no evidence of chemical dumping at a historical fill area believed to have been a dumping pond and said IDEM confirmed the pond had no constituents of concern above applicable screen levels.
“As we have gathered more data, our technical understanding of these complex issues has evolved,” the company wrote in a letter to Mayor Miles Hewitt Feb. 6. “Although we do not yet have data to answer all possible questions, we remain committed to engaging with key stakeholders to share relevant information.”
Publicly available EPA and IDEM records suggest Schneider Electric should have known about the possibility of TCE or other contamination spreading beyond the confines of the former Square D facility.
An investigation by the Indiana State Board of Health, the precursor to the Indiana Department of Health and IDEM, investigated the Square D facility in the 1970s, finding the company was discharging water used during parts cleaning and water from the paint spray booth wash water and wash basin wastewater directly onto the ground at the rear of the facility. The company also hired an unlicensed waste hauler to dispose of paint sludge.
The board warned the company that this method of waste disposal needed to be eliminated due to a potential threat to groundwater aquifers in the area.
Solvents like TCE were commonly used in electroplating and other activities, which were done at the Square D facility until 1985.
The Square D facility was listed as a hazardous waste activities site in 1980 under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, but in 1983, the EPA told Square D it did not need a hazardous waste permit due to the presence of a wastewater treatment unit and the fact that hazardous waste generated onsite usually stayed onsite less than 90 days. The company would later be cited for storing hazardous waste for more than 90 days.
The decision to not require a hazardous waste permit was at least partly due to the Reagan administration’s effort to weaken the EPA and its hazardous material enforcement, which ultimately resulted in a Congressional investigation, a contempt finding and the resignation of EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch and prison time for Rita Lavelle, the assistant administrator in charge of directing the hazardous waste control program and Superfund sites.
A Congressional report found that during the first year of the Reagan administration, referrals to the EPA from regional administrators dropped 79% and referrals to the U.S. Department of Justice dropped 69%.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations report concluded that Gorsuch reorganized the enforcement program several times, confusing enforcement responsibilities so much that even regulated industries complained about the turmoil caused by the changes at the EPA.
The report said the Reagan administration also switched to a “voluntary compliance” philosophy, which reserved legal action only for situations when companies were caught violating the law, which was made difficult by Gorsuch separating legal and technical staff through reorganizations.
Difficulties at the EPA may have affected investigation of the Square D facility. It was assessed as a Superfund site during the Reagan administration but was disqualified from placement on the National Priorities List, a list of the most polluted sites in the country, in 1987.
The site inspection team evaluated the site under a plan approved by the EPA. It did not take any samples at the site, and relied on a magnetic survey of the facility to assess the presence of heavy metals. The survey failed to find any low resistivity, indicating the lack of heavy metals, but the team warned that a large number of non-conductive materials creating large voids in the pit where the sludge was expected to be could impede the flow of an electric current enough to skew results. Other factors, like large amount of fill mixed into the sludge or if the sludge was buried deeper than the instruments were configured to read, could also have changed results, the report stated.
Square D and all its assets were sold to Schneider Electric in 1991. The Peru site was later archived in 1996, meaning the EPA determined that no further remedial action was planned under the Superfund program.
Schneider Electric had more resources than just the EPA to find out what sort of pollution was at their site.
According to Schneider Electric’s Voluntary Remediation Program application, a limited phase II site assessment, which looks for the presence of petroleum products or hazardous substances, was performed at the site in 2001. It found evidence of naphthalene, arsenic, cadmium and some volatile organic compounds.
Former Square D employees, like 37-year employee John Stoeckert, have told Peru city officials they regularly used toxic volatile organic compounds, like acetone, toluene, butyl acetate, methyl ethyl ketone, butyl alcohol, benzene and others.
Stoeckert said he stopped working at the plant in 2008 after he was diagnosed with neuropathy, nerve damage that causes pain and eventual loss of feeling in the extremities. He also suffers from a perforated colon and survived bouts of cancer, health problems he attributes to exposure to the chemicals used at the plant.
“It took 37 years before my body gave up and forced me out of the workplace,” Stoeckert said. “You close this up in five years and say, ‘Well, we’ve got that taken care of.’ Twenty years after that, some of these people will still be suffering because they didn't know they had anything.”
Schneider Electric is currently testing homes and properties outside the fence line of the Square D plant to find the extent of the contamination.
That testing is part of remediation efforts by the company that began after Schneider Electric was accepted into IDEM’s Voluntary Remediation Program February 2022 and began a path to potentially avoid liability for contamination at the site and beyond.
According to IDEM, the program provides a process for property owners and others to voluntarily investigate and remediate contaminated property.
Under the program, property owners submit proposed cleanups to IDEM for evaluation. IDEM can approve the plan as is or make adjustments. The plan provides the boundaries and goals for the cleanup.
Once the cleanup is finished and approved by IDEM, the agency can issue a Certificate of Completion and the Indiana Governor’s Office can issue a Covenant Not to Sue, which protects the company from liability or claims from the state based on the release or threatened release of the contaminants listed in the approved VRP work plan.
“Although Schneider Electric did not cause this contamination, we are taking full responsibility for it and are committed to securing regulatory closure from IDEM’s Voluntary Remediation Program,” the company wrote to city officials.
“While the management of this kind of environmental contamination typically takes years to fully address, we are committed to moving quickly through the process to address the potential risks, fulfill our obligations, and ensure there are no unacceptable future risks to human health or the environment.”
Peru residents worry that what the company and the state find “acceptable” may not be in their best interests.
A 2016 investigation of IDEM’s Voluntary Remediation Program by Indianapolis TV station WTHR found one of every six VRP program members did not finish cleanups for more than a decade, allowing contamination to seep into neighboring areas.
IDEM has kicked companies out of the program for failing to stick to their approved cleanup plans, like it did in Tipton in 2012 when the company that owns the Acraline Products Inc. failed to begin excavation at a TCE contamination site two and a half years after the plan was approved.
But after the company was dropped from the program, IDEM did not force it to clean up the site for another four years, during which time the chemicals approached the city’s drinking water wells. Remediation was not completed until early 2020, a decade after the company was accepted into the program.
At least four contaminated sites in Peru have been part of Voluntary Remediation Program efforts, and all took more than a decade to clean up.
The CSX Transportation Inc., owner of the former C & O Rail Yard, filed to clean up the property under the program in 1998. The site was contaminated with diesel fuel and volatile organic compounds. Remediation at the site was completed in 2010, but tight land and water restrictions were placed on the property. The site could not be used for agricultural or residential purposes, like daycares, schools or senior citizen facilities. Any homes or business buildings built on the property would have to have vapor intrusion control systems.
The property was later purchased by the Miami County YMCA.
Northern Indiana Public Service Co. entered the Voluntary Remediation Program for the cleanup of two manufactured gas plants in the city in the early 2000s. NIPSCO was accepted into the program to clean up the Old Peru Gas Plant at 195 Canal St. in 2002 and another plant at 1619 W. Logansport Road in 2004.
Coal ash, volatile organic compounds and other toxic substances were found at the plant. Remediation is still ongoing at the Logansport Road plant. NIPSCO pulled out of the program for the Canal Street cleanup in 2010, opting for participation in the less legally-protective State Cleanup Program.
Orion Safety Products entered the program in 2006 to clean up perchlorate found at its signal flare manufacturing plant. Cleanup continued until 2022, but a perchlorate plume still exists under the site. The company placed an environmental restrictive covenant on the site, preventing the land from being used for agricultural and residential uses. Groundwater extraction at the site is prohibited, except for sampling or further remediation.
Plothow, of the Peru city council, said she hopes the state holds Schneider Electric to the highest standards for its own cleanup, but she doesn’t expect an easy path ahead.
“Environmental management for Indiana, they just do the bare minimum. The lowest standards possible,” said Plothow. “They might say ‘voluntary remediation’ just to save face and do what they might have been forced to do eventually. I think they're shining a bright light on TCE and don't want to recognize other chemicals, you know, ‘nothing to see here.’ But I'm very worried.”
Plothow’s worries could be justified, as Schneider Electric has had a spotty history concerning environmental remediation and other federal regulations.
The company was assessed a $6.8 million penalty in 2016 for alleged environmental violations at its Rodale Manufacturing Superfund site in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, the largest Superfund-related fine ever. The EPA found the company had failed to maintain air pollution equipment to collect and treat TCE and other compounds, failed to alert the EPA and state agencies about the malfunctioning equipment and other violations.
It also paid $11 million in 2020 to settle claims it paid kickbacks and overcharged for energy-saving upgrades in federal buildings and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in workplace safety violations at plants in Ohio and Texas.
Schneider Electric said it is finalizing an agreement with IDEM over reporting, planning and training violations related to the Peru plant closing in 2020.
The Peru City Council has set up a Restoration Advisory Board to monitor cleanup progress at the Square D plant and ease communication between the city government, interest groups, Schneider Electric and regulatory agencies.
Plothow said residents are trying to get state officials to study whether Peru residents have had higher incidences of cancer or other health conditions due to contamination.