By Emile Rizk
Flexsteel Industries has agreed to settle a toxic pollution lawsuit by paying $9.8 million to clean up its former furniture manufacturing site in Elkhart, Indiana.
The agreement finalized in December resolves a suit against Flexsteel Industries for groundwater contamination at the Lane Street industrial site and also requires the company to reimburse the Environmental Protection Agency for some past expenses in responding to the contamination.
The contamination has affected the drinking water quality for local residents using wells, according to the EPA.
“The site consists of approximately 65 acres of residential and light industrial properties impacted by a groundwater plume contaminated primarily with solvents and degreasers such as trichloroethene (TCE) and tetrachloroethene (PERC),” the EPA and U.S. Justice Department said in announcing the settlement.
Both colorless chemicals, which are hard to identify visually, have been linked to cancer and other human health problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says both chemicals can cause headaches, lung irritation, dizziness, unconsciousness and in some cases death.
The suit was filed under the 1980 Superfund law that provides “broad federal authority to respond directly to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment,” according to the EPA.
Corinne Straight, the director of communications and quality of place for the city said, “Whenever decisions like this come out, it’s good news for the people of Elkhart.
“Settlements like this are a good reminder that some of these practices done by some of these companies, while they may not have known it was wrong at the time, do understand those lasting effects,” Straight said.
“As a resident of Elkhart, anytime we find out that this type of contamination is going to be taken care of, it’s a relief, and we’re always grateful that someone has taken responsibility and cleaned up,” she said.
In the settlement, the company does not admit to any wrongdoing.
Flexsteel Industries, which is headquartered in Dubuque, Iowa, purchased the land in 1997 and illegally disposed of hazardous materials directly through floor drains, dry wells and septic tanks, according to the federal government.
David Lush, a retired professor of geography at Michigan State University who spent the majority of his career doing outreach work on groundwater protection, said Flexsteel Industries used the chemicals predominantly in cleaning glue guns used to put its products together.
“For any place that utilized, stored or transshipped hazardous materials in the old days, safety protocols were nonexistent,” Lush said.
“Their (Flexsteel Industries) use protocols were pretty sloppy,” said Lush, “and their disposal protocols were almost nonexistent.”
Lush said TCE is heavier than water, which makes it harder to clean up. If TCE hits the bedrock in Elkhart, it will pool up, making it more difficult to install wells to help extract the chemical from the contaminated site.
According to Straight, the city could not do much at the local level to clean up the site, and that responsibility falls to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the EPA.
The EPA and state agency will work to keep affected residents informed, said Straight.
Lush said, “Most of the time, the site managers are working for the state environmental organization. In the past when I’ve interviewed these people, even though they were young at the time, they expected to retire being the site manager of these things.”
The cleanup may take decades to finish, he said.
“So, 30 years on a site like this would not be unusual,” he said.
The EPA previously reached settlements with two other companies that also contributed to contaminating the Lane Street site.