Perseverance pays for town with toxic site

Mayor William Bailey calls it a case of ''the mouse that roared'' - and was heard. The ''mouse'' was Seymour, a quiet, conservative German-Lutheran community of 15,000 residents.

The roar, let loose through a barrage of letters and comments in public meetings, was over a recycling site two miles southwest of town, stacked high with thousands of barrels of toxic chemicals from cyanide to PCBs. Some of the barrels were found to be leaking, sending forth noxious fumes. Fire was a steady concern. And farmers complained that the chemicals were harming their crops and livestock.

Those who heard the call for help - first state officials and finally the federal government - responded by negotiating what the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called an unprecedented $7.7 million first-stage cleanup agreement with 24 major companies including IBM and General Motors.

And through it all, according to Mayor Bailey, Seymour has become a stronger, more unified community with a determination never to let history repeat itself.

The initial surface cleanup, started last December, is now almost finished. Working out of a trailer on the 13-acre site, project manager John Renkes of Chemical Waste Management Inc., the company that won the bid to do the job, explains that all barrels have all been shipped to an Alabama landfill and that the topsoil has been has been buried in an Ohio landfill. But recent rains, he says, will push the completion date, once set for Dec. 23, into January.

A visitor who climbs the steps of the wooden observation tower over the site is still aware of a pungent chemical smell. But there are no more barrels in sight - only rain pockets in the freshly turned brown earth being checked over by employees in white suits and gas masks.

A subsurface cleanup, costing about half as much as the first phase, is next. Federal officials are still looking for the strategy with the best results for the least money.

''We're greatly relieved to have the surface part off because of the fire hazard it carried,'' says Judy Smith of the Seymour League of Women Voters, an organization that played a key role in getting action on the site and has been closely monitoring progress there. ''But we're very concerned now that the subsurface job be done correctly and that it be thorough.''

Mrs. Smith recalls the night about five years ago when she first became really concerned. ''We saw a huge exploding smoke ring that just moved straight across town - you couldn't miss it.'' Not knowing anything about the problem or what they would find, she and other members of the local league began to study the issue. Their research, including a check of Indiana Board of Health files, quickly persuaded them that Seymour faced a major problem.

As Mayor Bailey picks up the story in his City Hall office, a number of public meetings were held to which the media were invited. Many residents, including business leaders, ministers, and concerned parents, deluged their representatives in Indianapolis and Washington with letters asking for help.

''We felt the more publicized the problem was, the better,'' the mayor recalls.

Slowly but surely state and federal officials began to take charge. The Ohio owner of the recycling firm, William Kovaks, complaining that new regulations were keeping him from any profit, declared bankruptcy. Eventually federal officials went after the original generators of the waste to recover the cleanup cost.

Bailey says citizen alarm changed to concern, and finally - as trucks began carrying the liquid waste out of town - to an awareness that something really was being done about the problem. ''Selfishly we now feel more comfortable,'' he says. ''The things we thought could blow up and cause us problems are gone.''

He concedes that the experience has hurt Seymour property values - ''it's impossible to quickly overcome such bad publicity'' - and, to some extent, its prospects for economic development. But the mayor argues that few businesses were moving during the recession anyway and that the town's chief loss was the chance to ''romance'' industry. He says Seymour is in a strong position because of the experience to attract ''quality'' development. In anticipation, a new industial park is under way northeast of town.

''When someone's interested in building a plant here . . . we get a notebook and start asking questions,'' Bailey says. ''And we won't be timid about telling industries that have dangerous byproducts, 'Thanks but no thanks.' ''

''I think this community has a great opportunity now to pull itself together, '' says Judy Smith, who admits disappointment that more residents did not turn out for public meetings and spawn a concerned citizens group.

''I think maybe the seriousness of the threat just never really sank in on the general public. . . . I'm an optimist and I always believe that out of something bad can come something good if you set yourself in that direction.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.