Plastic pellets found in a wetland area connected to a PolyJohn stormwater discharge line on March 23, 2022. The port-a-potty manufacturer has since submitted a cleanup plan. Molly DeVore, file, The Times
Plastic pellets found in a wetland area connected to a PolyJohn stormwater discharge line on March 23, 2022. The port-a-potty manufacturer has since submitted a cleanup plan. Molly DeVore, file, The Times
HAMMOND — After multiple contamination complaints, PolyJohn Enterprises is moving forward with a plan to clean up plastic pellets found in and around George Lake.

PolyJohn has been manufacturing portable toilets and sinks in a facility just a few feet from the north basin of George Lake for almost 40 years. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management completed an initial inspection of the PolyJohn site in July 2020 after a resident reported finding thousands of plastic particles in the wetlands around George Lake.

The IDEM report explained that PolyJohn's stormwater lines extend to ditches that lead to George Lake. The IDEM inspector observed numerous plastic pellets in both ditches.

After the July 2020 inspection, IDEM completed a follow-up investigation and found that PolyJohn had ramped up cleaning operations but that some plastics were still present. On Nov. 8, 2021, IDEM approved an agreed order requiring PolyJohn submit a compliance plan identifying cleanup efforts and preventative measures, as well as a stormwater pollution prevention plan. PolyJohn also had to pay IDEM $11,350 as part of the agreed order, which allows a settlement of violations without the alleged violator admitting guilt.

Another resident complaint prompted an inspection of the site on March 25, 2022 — IDEM found plastic pellets and "a fine gray plastic powder."

IDEM issued a noncompliance letter March 31, 2022. The gray powder is called roto-powder, a material that is melted down to make portable sinks and port-a-potty tanks. The powder is usually collected by the catch basins that block PolyJohn's drains; however heavy spring rain can cause those basins to overflow, explained Sam Cooper, chief operations officer with PolyJohn.

The numerous plastic pellets are polyethylene, a plastic that never fully breaks down in nature.

Julie Peller, a Valparaiso University chemistry professor, said the polyethylene pellets only weather, becoming smaller, harder to remove and easier for critters to consume. When the many animals that call the lake home eat the plastic, it occupies their gut, giving them a false sense of fullness, and they ultimately become malnourished, Peller explained.

Once it has been exposed to an environment, polyethylene is very difficult to get rid of.

Because George Lake is owned by the city, Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. met with PolyJohn to discuss the pollution. During a June 13 Common Council meeting, McDermott said he thought the meeting was "real positive."

"It seemed to me that they were really concerned about the allegations of the plastic going into the water," McDermott told the council. "They were telling us about the containment they were establishing up there to prevent that from happening again."

On March 23, PolyJohn submitted the required compliance plan.

The companies' stated cleanup plans include using high-velocity vacuums to collect pellets that are on the soil and installing a containment boom and using skimmers to collect pellets in the water. PolyJohn now vacuums and sweeps its storage yard daily, using leaf blowers to get plastic pellets out of tight spaces.

It also bought a tractor with a sweeping element, put up screens along the fences, mounted boot brushes near exits, have a new silo for chip storage and installed a curb that directs stormwater to storm sewers where chips should be captured by screens.

PolyJohn said the screens are monitored daily.

On May 31, IDEM responded to PolyJohn's compliance plan; many of the "deficiencies" IDEM noted had to do with the plan being too general.

IDEM asked that PolyJohn document where exactly pellets have been found in the past, keep a detailed log of all inspections, specifically address how the roto-powder will be cleaned up, detail how new employees will be trained in the new maintenance measures and elaborate on how pellets found in the water and wetland are will be retrieved.

IDEM also wanted PolyJohn to monitor after any storm event with 0.1 or more inches of rain.

“IDEM would like to see weekly monitoring until plastic pellet observations begin to decrease, at which time Respondent could transition to monthly monitoring,” IDEM's response stated.

PolyJohn will now submit a revised compliance plan for review before actual cleanup work can begin. The revised plan was due June 15.

McDermott said that during his meeting, the possibility of PolyJohn eventually relocating was discussed.

"The best-case scenario would be if we could relocate PolyJohn, but keep them in Hammond," McDermott said. "They are sort of out of place now, that whole area around PolyJohn with the Lost Marsh has turned natural on them, and they are the only industry really left in that area. ... They are open to making a move if we could find a place for them.”
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