What did GE leave behind on Broadway?

August 27th, 2015

News Coverage:

 What did GE leave behind on Broadway?

Posted: Thursday, August 27, 2015 11:00 pm
By Linda Lipp

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management has hundreds of documents, dating back to about 1980, that detail what kinds of potentially hazardous materials were used or produced in General Electric’s Fort Wayne facilities.

But that represents only a tiny piece of the environmental history of GE’s manufacturing processes at the Broadway campus, which has been in use for about a century.

Until a group of local residents working to preserve the campus knows what environmental issues might arise, it’s difficult for planning to progress, said City Councilman Geoff Paddock, who organized the group.

“This is really the next level of investigation we need to understand the nature of the contamination and how expensive it would be to re-mediate,” he said at the group’s last meeting July 30.

Environmental regulations didn’t really exist prior to 1970, when Richard Nixon signed the executive order creating the Environmental Protection Agency, said Dan Goldblatt, IDEM spokesman. Thus, no one monitored what was going on.

“That’s the biggest problem with these older facilities,” Goldblatt said. “We don’t know what’s there. They don’t know what’s there.”

During the first decade after the EPA was created, Indiana’s Board of Health was responsible for collecting information on what substances were created and what methods were used to dispose of them. IDEM took on that task in the early 1980s. Many records from both agencies are available online through a virtual filing cabinet.

Making sense of those records is another thing entirely. West Central resident Charlotte Weybright is working her way through them for the local task force.

“They are just so complicated,” she said.

Some are handwritten and hard to decipher, many scans are of such poor quality they are illegible and others show a record exists but it has been redacted and is not readily available. All of them use alphabet-soup abbreviations and numerical codes that only an expert in the reporting process can understand.

At this point, Weybright is cautious about relying on the records to draw any conclusions.

“You don’t want to throw stuff out there that might be inaccurate,” she said.

The filings also cover more than GE’s Broadway campus. A number are related to its Taylor Street plant, built in 1942, which over the years made aircraft motors for the military, enameled copper and aluminum wires and aircraft motor control components. It also had a coal-fired power plant that required air and water quality monitoring as well as treatment and disposal of left-over residue, the IDEM records reveal.

Retired GE environmental engineer Denver Sarver believes that serious contamination problems are more likely to be found at the Taylor plant, later leased to BAE, than on the Broadway campus.

“I don’t think there’s going to be anything of any major consequence (on Broadway),” said Sarver, who began working at GE in 1970.

The motor manufacturing done at the Broadway campus likely did not generate any large scale hazardous wastes, he said.

GE completed some environmental remediation – including the removal of friable asbestos, solvents and other chemicals and hazardous materials – as it mothballed its Broadway plants over the last few years, GE spokesman Matt Conkrite said.

“To my knowledge, PCBs were not used to manufacture products in the Fort Wayne facility,” Conkrite added in an email Aug. 25. “PCBs were present in some parts of the building’s electrical system, which is typical for older buildings. As a precaution, we have removed these parts of the electrical system and cleaned the surrounding areas. There is no pending regulatory issue regarding PCB at the facility.”

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a known carcinogen.

The citizens task force meets next at 2 p.m. Sept. 3 at Citizens Square. Paddock said the group also is discussing holding a larger public forum, perhaps in conjunction with Indiana University - Purdue University Fort Wayne. The goal would be to demonstrate to GE a broad interest in the community in preserving and reusing the old GE buildings, he said.

As a significant piece of property near the downtown of the region’s core city, the future use of the GE Broadway campus could have an impact beyond Fort Wayne, said John Sampson, CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.

“It’s too big a piece of land, too much building, to let it languish forever,” Sampson said.

Suggestions for the future use of the property include a film studio, artists lofts, retail and even residential. TekVenture, which leases a small former vacuum cleaner shop on Broadway, is interested in the former GE rec center and perhaps two or three of the smaller buildings around it.

But, said the group’s president, Greg Jacobs, the organization does not have the funds to buy the buildings and would prefer the community or a developer own them.

GE is far along in the process of negotiating the sale of the Wall Street building, known as building No. 36, Conkrite said. Numerous sources have said the prospective buyer is local developer, Bill Bean.

General Electric completed the following environmental remediation at its Broadway campus:

• Removal and disposition of chemicals and hazardous materials;

• Removal of any “friable” asbestos that can put particles in the air and flaking paint;

• Cleaning out any pits, sumps, process lines, etc., that might have any solvent residues;

• Testing of remaining surfaces for any contamination before removal and appropriate management of waste and debris;

• Reclamation of scrap metals including copper and scrap steel;

• Removal of asbestos and interior structures with extensive water and mold damage; and

• Removal of deteriorated buildings for safety and security reasons.