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Bloomington still paying for guards, cleanup at decommissioned water treatment plant


The City of Bloomington Utilities has increased security at the decommissioned Griffy Water Treatment Plant. There are now 24-hour guards in front of the building. Sarah Zygmuntowski Buy Photos

Griffy Water Treatment Plant has been decommissioned for 23 years but is costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in cleanup because of mercury released by trespassers.

City of Bloomington Utilities first discovered mercury in 2017 and hired a contractor for environmental cleanup. In summer 2018, CBU found more mercury in a different part of the building. They realized the mercury was coming from equipment broken by trespassers. No cases of mercury poisoning were reported.

“If the vandals weren’t in there and hadn’t broken some of the equipment, the mercury would never have been released,” said James Hall, assistant director of environmental programs for City of Bloomington Utilities. “People were just tearing stuff up to tear stuff up.” 

Last July, the city announced it was hiring guards and installing night lighting to prevent the recently discovered mercury from leaving the decommissioned building's premises. They began environmental cleanup on the new mercury found. The city has spent roughly $140,000 on security guards, about $40,000 on temporary night lighting, $8,500 on permanent night lighting and $340,000 on the environmental cleanup since July, Hall said.

While cleaning up mercury inside the building, mercury was also found outside the building, which has made cleanup take longer than expected.

Next week, the city will send the initial site investigation plan to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. The plan details everything the city has done so far to clean up the area and all the data it collected from testing.

IDEM will provide feedback on what the city has done and what more it needs to do. They might say, for example, the city needs to do more testing in certain areas. Hall said he expects at least nine more months of work and an additional $200,000 to $400,000 will be needed to complete the cleanup.

Hall said there are many factors that contribute to the process of environmental cleanup such as contractors schedules, communicating with IDEM and weather, which has prevented workers from cleaning up the sub-basement of the building that is severely floods when it rains.

“We’re moving as fast as we can,” Hall said. “We’re doing everything we can.”

The decommissioned water treatment plant used to filter water from Griffy Lake to make it drinkable. The city has kept the plant for years in case it needed to reopen it, Hall said.

“It kind of got put on the backburner,” Hall said.

Now, the city is considering two different futures for the plant: selling it or demolishing it.

But first, the environmental cleanup must be finished. Hall said they tested three layers of the ground around the plant and identified all areas outside the plant where mercury levels were above contamination levels.

“It was mostly in that zero to six inches that we found the mercury,” Hall said.

Freshman Bella Realey said she has friends who recently went to the decommissioned plant late at night to check it out, and she was surprised they found security guards there. 

Hall said the guards encounter frequent visitors to the site. Realey said she thinks it’s the draw of an abandoned building that makes people go there.

In addition to the security keeping mercury from being carried off the premise, guards are also there because of the water in the building, which is a safety hazard, Hall said. If a trespasser were to fall into the sub basement, water would be 14 to 15 feet deep.

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