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Former Water Treatment Plant Suffers Due To Deterioration And Vandalism

Over twenty years ago, a water treatment plant that serviced the surrounding area of Bloomington, Indiana, was shut down due to the increased population growth, which overwhelmed the Griffy Lake water reservoir’s capacity. Close to that time, officials and engineers had selected another source, along with building another treatment plant to service the Bloomington, Indiana, service area today.

Former Indiana Water Treatment Plant Vacant Since 1996

 The former water treatment plant was officially shut down and vacated back in 1996. Due to the lack of upkeep and use, which happens when structures are left to sit idle, the plant began to deteriorate. Initially, the plant was constructed back in 1925 to service the water needs of the Bloomington area. The primary water source was Griffy Lake, which due to area population growth, exceeded its capacity to maintain the requirements for the whole Bloomington, IN, area, moving into the twenty-first century. In the meantime, another plant with a new water source was designated to serve the needs of the community.

Bloomington City Officials Discover Asbestos And Mercury Contamination

Several years ago, after complaints of trespassing, vandalism, and safety issues raised from community members, officials inspected the former water treatment plant. Officially, back in 2017, the City of Bloomington utility division found mercury contamination in plain view on concrete surfaces inside the building and around the outside of the building as well. Astonishingly, the Bloomington Utilities Department Assistant Director of Environmental Programs, James Hall, said the mercury contamination was most likely due to vandalism.

Older Water Treatment Plants Used Asbestos And Mercury

Historically, water treatment plants built in the early to mid-twentieth century utilized devices that contained mercury. In turn, these devices were used for monitoring procedures that were consistently observed inside a treatment plant. Mercury exists in various forms: elemental (or metallic) and inorganic (to which people may be exposed through their occupation); and organic.

These forms of mercury differ according to their degree of toxicity and in their effects on the nervous, digestive, and immune systems. Although coming from the same element, another form of mercury, ethylmercury, is used in small amounts to preserve vaccines and pharmaceuticals. Studies have shown that ethylmercury use as a vaccine preservative does not pose a health risk.

Unfortunately, mercury use in industrial settings requires the service of the methylmercury form. The use of mercury or methylmercury was utilized inside these water treatment plant devices but not limited to pressure switches, float switches, thermostats, outdoor thermometers, indoor boiler system thermometers, mercury lighting, and various pressure regulated monitoring systems.

Small Amounts Of Mercury Exposure Can Be Dangerous

 “According to the World Health Organization, exposure to mercury – even small amounts – may cause serious health problems, particularly in utero and early in life. Mercury may have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive, and immune systems. All humans are exposed to some level of mercury. Most people are exposed to low levels of mercury, often through chronic exposure (continuous or intermittent long- term contact).

Alternatively, some people are exposed to high levels of mercury, including acute or short-term exposure. An example of acute exposure would be mercury exposure due to an industrial accident. In effect, here are some factors that might determine whether health effects occur and to the degree in which the severity of those effects might be determined are: the type of mercury concerned; the dosage level; the age or developmental stage of the person exposed (the fetus is most susceptible); the duration of exposure; the route of exposure (inhalation, ingestion or dermal contact).

Bloomington Officials Also Discovered Asbestos

Adding to the discovery made by city officials, they also noted that asbestos was present inside the plant. Asbestos is a group of mineral fibers that are found naturally in the earth. Asbestos was once widely in this country for numerous industrial applications. In relation, up until the mid-1970s, asbestos insulation was used in industrial boilers, piping, valves, pumps, and other commercial devices. Asbestos silicate mineral fibers are unique because they possess inherent fire and heat resistant qualities. In turn, these qualities were exploited through the use of asbestos to help control temperature and fire-safe regulation inside many water treatment plants past the midpart of the twentieth century.

Asbestos Is Harmful When Disturbed By Deterioration

The downside to asbestos is the fact that it is harmful to human health when the mineral fibers are disturbed from their natural or humanmade solidified state. Asbestos becomes dangerous when it breaks apart or is disturbed. Once pieces of asbestos fibers or dust become airborne, they are subjected to becoming inhaled or swallowed. Over time, those ingested asbestos particulates become lodged in the lining of the lungs or abdomen. In effect, those particles can buildup and cause the onset of mesothelioma cancer. Also, asbestos exposure has been known to enhance lung disease and lung cancer.

Vandalism Enhanced The Risk Of Environmental Contamination

In this case, since the Griffy Water Treatment plant was constructed in the 1920’s the combination of asbestos, in addition, to the mercury controls, which sat idly inside this plant for decades, would eventually succumb to a fragile state due to deterioration alone. Unfortunately, vandals, who had been trespassing in and out of the vacant plant made things worse not only at that moment but for everyone else in the community.

Former Water Treatment Plant Is Monitored 24/7

Presently, the Bloomington Utilities department has ordered twenty-four-hour day security guards to monitor the former water treatment plant. In the beginning, security guards were on call and watched the plant in spurts since 2017, but went online full- time last July. The incidents that occurred from the inspection that uncovered the rampant vandalism not only caused a nuisance but enhanced an environmental health risk to residents and others around the Bloomington, In, area.

More Damage Found Due To Vandals

After a contractor was hired to clean up the mercury contamination caused by the vandalism, reported in 2017, the city discovered more mercury in another part of the former plant. As a result, they determined the mercury was coming from more equipment that had been damaged by trespassers. In comment, “If the vandals weren’t in there and hadn’t broken some of the equipment, the mercury would never have been released,” said James Hall, assistant director of environmental programs for City of Bloomington Utilities. “People were just tearing stuff up to tear stuff up.”

City Officials Have Spent Over $500,000 Since Last July

Upon further environmental assessment, Bloomington officials began efforts to clean up the environmentally hazardous area in and around the plant grounds. To date, the city has spent $140,000 on security; $48,500 on lighting; and $340,000 on environmental remediation thus far. In the coming weeks, Bloomington environmental authorities will send an up to date report to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, which entails all data collected, testing, and environmental cleanup progress completion reports.

Authorities Estimate $200K- $400K Need To Finish Environmental Cleanup Work

According to Bloomington officials, they expect at least nine more months of work, and an additional $200,000 to $400,000 will be needed to complete the cleanup. Hall said many factors contribute to the process of environmental remediation, such as contractor’s schedules, communicating with IDEM and weather, which has prevented workers from cleaning up the sub-basement of the building that is severely flooded when it rains. “We’re moving as fast as we can,” Hall said. “We’re doing everything we can.” The decommissioned water treatment plant used to filter water from Griffy Lake to make it drinkable. The city has kept the plant for years in case it needed to reopen it, Hall said. “It kind of got put on the backburner,” Hall said.

Former Water Treatment Plant To Be Sold Or Demolished

For the future, the city of Bloomington is considering selling the plant or demolishing it due to the large liabilities involved with the upkeep and maintenance of the former facility. Before any other decisions can be made, the environmental cleanup work has to be completed and approved by the state before Bloomington, In, can go forward.

Abandoned Plants And Buildings Are Dangerous

A lesson and reminder for everyone are that abandoned or vacant plants and buildings are dangerous. No one should enter or explore these places unless no matter what. Containers and chemicals can still be present and will be just as toxic now as they were then. Remember, as time goes on, things become brittle and lose their natural strength due to deterioration.

These old plants or buildings become more dangerous over time, and asbestos-containing materials become more viable to breaking apart. Residents who live near aging or vacant plants or buildings need to be aware that they can still be exposed secondarily to the dangers of asbestos and other chemicals from these locations.

Furthermore, if you or a loved one feel as if you may be suffering from the harmful effects of chemical or asbestos exposure, please do not hesitate to contact an experienced asbestos or mesothelioma attorney.

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