Dead geese lie along the shore of Wolf Lake in Hammond. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources is investigating after receiving several reports of dead waterfowl at the lake since mid-February. Photo provided by Stacey Cycak Beason and Leo Mores
Dead geese lie along the shore of Wolf Lake in Hammond. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources is investigating after receiving several reports of dead waterfowl at the lake since mid-February. Photo provided by Stacey Cycak Beason and Leo Mores
HAMMOND — While a mass die-off of waterfowl from earlier this year is still being investigated at Wolf Lake, another investigation was sparked after pieces of plastic and Styrofoam were found in the water in the nearby George Lake in Hammond.

Ron Novak, director of the Hammond Department of Environmental Management, said the Indiana Department of Environmental Management was contacted to investigate after plastic pellets were found by a resident April 3 in the north basin of George Lake.

“We have been working with IDEM to gather the information on that particular discharge, working with the Hammond Sanitary District and the Hammond Port Authority,” Novak said at a public meeting April 21 at Lost Marsh Golf Course. “We’ve had several meetings with IDEM and we are looking at where that material came from and identifying the material.”

In addition, Styrofoam pieces were found in the south basin of George Lake shortly after the plastic pellets were reported in the north basin. Novak said that incident also is being investigated. He said both investigations are ongoing.

“We found about (the plastic) from a citizen complaint, we investigated and found out that it appears to be an ongoing type of problem out there,” Novak said. “We are trying to find out how far it goes back and if there was a permit issued for discharging from the state and city.”

Whiting resident Carolyn Marsh said she believes the plastic pieces are from PolyJohn Enterprise Corporation at 2500 Gaspar Ave. in Whiting. According to IDEM documents, environmental officials found that the company has been previously cited for discharging pollutants into George Lake wetlands.

Marsh is among a group of Hammond and Whiting area residents who document and discuss environmental concerns.

“I think people have a hard time wanting to accept that our area is polluted,” Marsh said. “I think a lot of people are in denial, and being in denial means you don’t have to do anything. That’s why we need to speak up. We are obligated to do so.”

In July 20, 2020, IDEM said it investigated the PolyJohn property after a complaint was made about thousands of pieces of plastic being discharged into George Lake. During a subsequent inspection, environmental officials noted numerous pieces of blue, orange and yellow plastic in the southeast corner of George Lake, adjacent to PolyJohn, according to the IDEM report.

In the report, IDEM inspectors noted a stormwater line on PolyJohn property that collects stormwater along the southern portion of the facility and extends beyond the property, discharging into a ditch that leads into George Lake wetlands. Plastic pieces were found in the ditch and on PolyJohn property. The inspector said it appeared the stormwater system and wind were responsible for carrying the plastic from the property into the wetlands, according to the IDEM report.

IDEM issued a violation notice on Feb. 4, 2021, that required the company to correct the violations and also listed penalties of monetary fines.

IDEM said it received the latest complaint on April 5, in which it was reported that a material was being discharged into George Lake. PolyJohn officials did not respond to questions about the discharges.

At March’s Mayor’s Night Out meeting at Lost Marsh Golf Course in Hammond, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said the latest investigations of George Lake's north and south basins are something the city doesn't take lightly.

“We were made aware of it by concerned citizen and immediately took action with the proper authorities and obviously it’s an unacceptable situation,” McDermott said. “If they are illegally discharging, the proper authorities have been notified. It’s something we take seriously. Especially with everything going on with the birds, if that’s a possible explanation, obviously it’s something we are thinking about as well and something IDEM is thinking about.”

Novak said though local officials wish to clean the plastic from the wetlands, IDEM advised against doing so due to another more longstanding investigation of possible lead in the north basin of George Lake.

“We’ve talked to IDEM about remediation out there,” Novak said. “Due to the problems with lead potentially in the north basin of George Lake, they want to put off any remediation of removing any of that material.”

IDEM officials stated that if city crews move to clean up the north basin, they could stir up sediments which could cause inaccurate readings for future testing and sampling, Novak said. He said the concern of possible lead in the north basin comes from the lead-processing operations by the parent company of Whiting Metals, which was no longer in business as of Dec. 31, 2020. While remediation work has been done in the past years, assessments and cleanup efforts still continue. In this case, he said the state wants to assess the north basin as a whole, including the plastic pieces.

“First IDEM wants to assess what is in the lake, analyze the current sampling data and do a comprehensive remediation plan,” Novak said. “Most of the stuff is heavy and settles at the bottom. If we dredge it now, we might reintroduce materials into the water. We have to do it comprehensively, do it with the latest data, do it once and do it right.”

He said there are no concerns of lead in George Lake's south basin, which is open for recreation. However, the north basin is off limits as a conservation area.

“We’re learning it’s been an ongoing issue for a year now and is more significant than thought,” Novak said. “We are looking at hopefully getting that material out as soon as possible.”

Wolf Lake investigation

Meanwhile, Hammond officials and IDEM have conducted multiple tests and have found no contaminates in the soil or water of Wolf Lake. But what's killing the waterfowl is still a mystery.

The Department of Natural Resources said that results were still not available for the necropsy reports, leaving residents and officials still in the dark about what caused the deaths of geese, ducks, coots and swans that were reported starting in mid-February. Investigators collected the deceased waterfowl and sent the remains to a lab at the U.S.G.S. National Wildlife Health Center the week of Feb. 22.

“These types of necropsy reports typically take time,” said J.B. Brindle, Indiana DNR communications director. “There’s no timeline for when they will be finished but we have been checking with the lab. We are asking the same questions and want answers as well, and I understand the community is concerned.”

Brindle said the DNR is not speculating what caused the deaths, pending necropsy results. According to a previous DNR news release, there were reports of an outbreak of avian cholera in early March, which caused the deaths of 176 geese in Gibson County. The lab where the tests are being done, the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin, has not given a timeline of when the results will be done and referred to the DNR for inquiries.

At the Mayor’s Night Out meeting, concerns were raised over the investigation’s lack of progress. McDermott, who said he plans to swim in Wolf Lake for an annual triathlon in a month, asserted that Wolf Lake is safe.

“I don’t know why the birds are dying, but they’re not dying because of the water, and they’re not dying because of the land,” McDermott said. “I’d take a big drink of that water and have no problem with it. That lake is clean.”

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