A southern Indiana land conservancy is pondering its mission after inheriting a toxic waste dump near Bloomington.
From 1962-1970, an 18-acre site west of Bloomington called Neal's Landfill accepted industrial waste from what was then Westinghouse Electric Corp. The waste included polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a class of compounds used by Westinghouse to insulate capacitors produced at a nearby plant.
PCBs were banned in the 1970s after they were linked to multiple health problems, and the landfill was designated a Superfund site by the EPA in 1983.
Now, the landfill is capped with clay and is overgrown with grass. Except for the EPA's testing wells, it looks like any other hilltop meadow. In 2003, the land was bought by David Porter, a compost farmer.
A Farmer's Dream
"You know, a lot of people say 'not in my backyard.' David wanted that backyard because he had more control of the situation if he was an owner," said Dawn Hewitt, Porter's longtime girlfriend.
Looking out over the land, she said Porter was dissatisfied with the environmental remedies being negotiated and owning the site gave him legal standing to sue.
Porter had dreams of opening a kite park once the cleanup was complete. But in 2006, as he was dying of colon cancer, Porter bequeathed Neal's Landfill to the Sycamore Land Trust, a nonprofit that stewards about 4,000 acres in south-central Indiana.
The trust's executive director, Christian Freitag, said his organization initially wasn't quite sure what to do with the gift.
"There are probably a thousand different land trusts in the country who would never touch it with a 10-foot pole because the first knee-jerk reaction everybody has is, 'My gosh, what about the liability?'" he said.
Land trusts like Freitag's usually deal with corn fields or old logging areas, not toxic waste dumps. But EPA project manager Tom Alcamo told Freitag that if Sycamore Land Trust were to take possession of the property, it would be considered an "innocent purchaser" under the Superfund law.
"They're completely protected under Superfund. Unless they did something that would damage the landfill cap or damage the site remedy, there's no liability associated with that," Alcamo said.
With legal concerns aside, Freitag said, board members had to reconsider the very act of conservation, and they thought hard about whether to accept this Superfund site.
"Not every piece of land that we have is going to be wilderness-quality land. What does it mean to be a conservationist? Does it mean only focusing on the best of the best? Or does it mean looking a piece of ground like this and saying, 'What role can we play to bring that back into the positive realm?'" Freitag questioned.
After nearly two years of grappling with those questions, Sycamore Land Trust took possession of Neal's Landfill.
While it's unlikely that Porter's dream of a kite park on this hill will come true, Freitag said he hopes the treeless site could, indeed, harness the wind — for turbines.
Adam Ragusea reports for member station WFIU in Bloomington, Ind.