Note: the content of this post reflects the stories I heard and read about the site as its IDEM staff geologist between 2006 – 2009. In one or more future posts, I will provide additional details and any needed corrections from the extensive publicly available documentation on the site. Feel free to contact me with any corrections or additional lore. Concerns about the actual site should be made known to the U.S. EPA Chicago region office and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, with which I am no longer affiliated.
It was a different time in the 1970s. My students in introductory geology in the 2010s had never heard of the Superfund program, but in the 70s, it did not even exist yet. However, there were people in the U.S. so visionary, so forward thinking, that they were positioning their industrial sites and waste dumps for the program decades before it even came into being. Love Canal. The Valley of the Drums. Continental Steel.
For my money, though, the TRUE visionaries are those people, armed with little more than a small rural property and a squirrelly idea, who managed to make it big. Really big.
Such a man was Galen Myers.
The wild and woolly strip of land was delivered from Michigan to Indiana at her birth so that she could have Michigan City, Portage, Gary, and access to Lake Michigan, but it stretches all the way to Ohio, so that South Bend could be at the very northern end of the state and so could Elkhart, Angola, and a quiet little place called Osceola (where the wind also comes sweeping down the plain). The landscape is dominated by low rolling hills and the St. Joseph River – the more famous of the two, although if your eye prowls a map, you’ll find another near the Ohio – Indiana line not far away. Both rivers are the gift of the glaciers, and came to exist in only the last 20,000 years or so. The St. Joseph we are concerned with flows over an astounding thickness of sand, left behind as the glaciers melted. It’s a beautiful place to drill a well. Hammer a pipe 20 feet into the ground, and you can pump water out as hard and as long as you like.
That kind of resource is handy in industry, and industry is what the region got in spades. South Bend got Studebaker and AM General. Elkhart got the RV manufacturers. There were many others. In the better living through chemistry(™) era of the 1940s and beyond, an ever more extensive array of chemicals were used in these industries, especially a delightful little chemical called tricholorethylene (since standardized to trichloroethene, and known as TCE to its friends).
Eventually, a clamor arose. These chemicals were doing nasty things to the places where they were being disposed. An entire new type of government agency, as is the custom, was erected to come up with a centrally planned set of solutions to the problem, including documenting what the wastes were and where they were going. The EPA was born in 1970, and industry groaned. It was so much easier when you could just dump all that stuff in a old quarry or something. (Oh, yes, we’ll get to Continental Steel.)
Galen Myers saw his chance to become a legend.
He owned a small patch of land in Osceola, right between Elkhart and South Bend. He started advertising a service: Galen Myers Dump and Drum Salvage. His business plan was beautifully simple.
- Accept a small fee along with those steel drums of waste.
- Kick the drums over in the back forty, hose them out, and sell them for use as trash cans.
All the liquid in those drums soaked into all that sand, and did what liquid contaminants do in the St. Joseph Valley: trickle straight down to the water table, then start following the groundwater flow straight toward the river.
Meanwhile, in 1980, the US EPA was given a massive mandate and a dedicated tax stream to go try to fix huge contaminated sites whose owners or responsible parties were either too poor to afford the cleanup or had fled the country. (We’ll get to Continental Steel in a few months, I promise.) The tax on chemicals that was imposed was paid into the Super Fund. While the actual Superfund didn’t last out the 1980s, the name has stuck. State agencies, seeing problems too big for them to handle, gained the opportunity to write up scoring documents demonstrating the size and danger of the sites in question, allowing them to be placed on the National Priority List of sites in the Superfund program.
Galen Myers died. His son sold the property to an unsuspecting citizen in the back of a bar for $10,000 cash. (Again, today I’m relaying the stories I’ve heard. In future episodes, I’ll get back to the question of whether I can substantiate this anecdote.)
Now, between the Galen Myers dump and the St. Joseph River are a few miles of sandy country, where c. 1970-1990 or so people built a lot of $100,000 houses back when that would buy you a starter mansion. Being ten miles out of town, all these folk were on wells.
Being in the path of Galen Myers’ TCE on its inevitable march to the river, TCE started showing up in some of their well water.
I don’t know whose eyes widened first at that office in Indianapolis, realizing that something had gotten out of hand, but IDEM, newly separated from the State Board of Health, got the case to the EPA, and the EPA got water piped out all the way from bloody Mishawaka, the aforementioned ten miles away. There was an unpleasant knock at the door when the EPA had to visit the new owner of the Galen Myers property. The residual contaminated soil at the property was taken away, but the plume remained. It was already on the order of a mile long, if memory serves.
There’s nothing practical you can do about a plume that big, in sand that permeable, other than stop using the groundwater and wait several decades. We’re still waiting. Every five years, test wells are sampled to see how far the plume has gotten. Someday it will reach the river, where it will get diluted and broken down by sunlight, and there will be an end to the legend of Galen Myers.
But if you want to live on for a century or two after you die, this is admittedly one way to do it.