Monroe County officials have moved ahead with purchasing 29.46 acres in the northern part of a larger site that has been proposed as a tourism destination, despite the presence of environmental contaminants including polychlorinated biphenyls in the area.
On Tuesday, the Monroe County Council approved the $370,000 purchase of two properties on Hunter Valley Road, northwest of the Ind. 46 and Interstate 69 interchange.
The purchase agreement had already been approved by the Monroe County Board of Commissioners.
"I'm very concerned about doing this," said council member Marty Hawk, who acknowledged she was in the minority. The council's sole Republican, she was the only dissent in the 6-1 vote.
Since at least 2019, Monroe County has been looking into purchasing nearly 100 acres of quarry land for a variety of recreational and educational uses, potentially including parks, trails, exhibits about the limestone industry and an outdoor concert venue.
Because it was host to a number of industrial uses decades ago and includes quarries that sometimes were used as unsanctioned dumping grounds by the public, the area contains PCBs. PCBs are a group of man-made organic chemicals that were formerly used in some industrial and commercial applications. These chemicals have been linked to causing cancer with long-term, high levels of exposure.
The land's contamination level is reportedly low, but the county has ordered numerous studies on the properties to measure public health risk, one of which was conducted by researcher Diane Henshel of Indiana University. Henshel is currently conducting a months-long study of the targeted land alongside a class of IU students, but she appeared at an August county commissioners meeting to speak on some preliminary findings.
In the report, Henshel identified potential health concerns such as contamination levels and rough terrain.
According to Henshel, PCBs remain in the bedrock and are unable to be removed. She likened the limestone to a "very cracked Swiss cheese and the PCBs are in there." Flooding and construction can jar PCBs out of the bedrock into the environment.
Measured amounts of PCB contamination have been low and have not been found to hit a hazard concern level, Henshel said during her presentation. She added she would discourage pregnant women from frequently visiting the area or becoming part of its full-time staff.
Henshel's comment about pregnant women was brought up by Hawk at the council meeting when she discussed her own background while working at Westinghouse, which had a Bloomington manufacturing plant that used PCBs in the electrical capacitors it made in the 1960s.
Hawk said she had been pregnant while working at the plant on the switchboard.
"At the time, (I) had no idea that I was putting my daughter's health at risk or my health at risk — and believe me, we've had a lot of reason to question some of her health situations when she was little," Hawk said. "I hold that near and dear to my heart, especially when we're being advised by the person who's looking into some of this is saying that 'it would not be good for a pregnant person or one who was nursing to be a part of the staff there.'"
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Council member Kate Wiltz, who also serves as president pro tempore, responded that Henshel's pregnancy comment was referencing the quarry land directly south of the Hunter Valley Road properties. That quarry property is not currently up for purchase by the county.
County attorney Margie Rice agreed with Wiltz that the specific pregnancy comment made by Henshel was not about these specific properties.
According to Rice, the Hunter Valley Road properties would provide access to the quarry property, but they are also "marketable properties" that could be resold if the county decides to not purchase the other property.
These properties on Hunter Valley Road do not have as great of concern about the environmental risk, according to Rice. The quarry property nearby requires "additional investigatory work" that Henshel is currently conducting that will later factor into the county officials' decision, Rice said.
According to Hawk, the purchase of Hunter Valley Road properties are part of the greater quarry land proposal. Quarry land property is south of the Hunter Valley Road properties.
"We would have no need to buy this (property) if we didn't intend to buy the other one, of course, because this county is not in the position to be investors in real estate," said Hawk.
That isn't necessarily the case, Wiltz said. According to Wiltz, she spoke with a member of the redevelopment commission who "made a case for buying these (properties) based on right of way" for the Monroe County Highway Department.
"If it makes everyone feel better to make whatever reason that you want to support this — I don't intend to — I think if the highway wanted to buy it for their right of way, they could have come to us and that's why we would say we are doing this for the highway right of way. That's not what we're saying here. That's not the way it was presented," Hawk responded.
Before council comments closed, Wiltz said she wanted to acknowledge the "painful history" of PCBs in the community.
"There are a lot of stories, many stories around this period of our history about the negative impacts of the PCBs that were dumped there," Wiltz said. "I think, in my opinion, should we move forward with the other property, regardless of these two (properties), I'm hoping that the intent is to honor that story (and) tell that story in the interest of truth and speaking truth but also in the interest of acknowledging what happened in our community that was really painful."
According to Wiltz, the county becoming stewards of the quarry land could accomplish telling that story. County officials have said the land could be turned into a tribute to the community’s limestone heritage.
"I think that's a side of parks and public lands that we don't often promote, but that's every bit as important reason to purchase and steward the property," Wiltz said.
In other news, county council also had its public hearing on the 2022 budget; no one spoke. The first reading of the budget will be on Monday, Oct. 18.
Contact Rachel Smith at email@example.com or @RachelSmithNews on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Monroe County Council OK property purchases near quarry