TERRE HAUTE —
Today, it’s only a big, open field with scattered scrub trees, weeds and pieces of industrial rubble.
It’s hard to believe it was once a mammoth manufacturing facility, swarming with workers, trucks and railroad cars while belching steam and smoke 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Originally built in 1916, Terre Haute’s former “coke plant” included several tall smoke stacks, a dozen brick buildings and its own railroad yard. On one side were tall mounds of black coal waiting to be converted into coke, a coal byproduct used in steel manufacturing.
Burning coal to make coke produces a number of valuable byproducts, such as gas, ammonia, tar and benzene. All these products added value to the plant, which provided gas for homes in Terre Haute and other products shipped around the Midwest.
But there’s another side to the plant’s history. Many of the men who worked there or their surviving family members, believe coal dust led to serious health problems and, in many cases, early deaths.
There’s also the environmental impact. The City of Terre Haute, the state of Indiana and the federal government have so far poured about a half-a-million dollars into studying the contamination at the site. Cleanup of about 20 of the site’s 53 acres is expected to begin next year at an estimated cost of $7 million. By the time the whole site is clean, in several more years, the final price tag could be more than twice that.
The making of a costly cleanup
The coke plant opened in 1916 as the Indiana Coke and Gas Company at a cost of $750,000, according to a contemporary article in the Terre Haute Tribune. Originally, the plant’s president, Alfred F. Ogle, hoped to put the facility at 13th Street and College Avenue. But those plans changed and the plant opened a few blocks to the south at 13th and Hulman Streets.
A formal opening of the plant in September 1916 included Ogle and other plant executives. Plant officials said the facility would produce 400 tons of coke and 2 million feet of gas per day. It was also expected to produce tar, ammonia and benzol.
In 1935, Indiana Gas and Chemical Corp. took over operation of the plant. That company, eventually acquired by the Hulman family, maintained ownership until the late 1980s. The Hulmans sold the plant in 1989 to Terre Haute Coke and Carbon, which only operated the plant for a short time before going out of business in the early 1990s. The facility was soon demolished and was eventually fully acquired by the City of Terre Haute’s Department of Redevelopment, the current property owner.
Dreaming of a better future
Since gaining control of the land, city officials have dreamed of turning the property into something positive. Presently, the goal is to transform the property into a park for light-industrial manufacturers, private firms that would pay property taxes.
But, to get there, the city has had to undergo the painstakingly slow process of studying the site for environmental hazards and cleaning it up, often using federal or state grant money, but also using local tax dollars.
One of the first environmental tests of the site came in 2000 through a $35,000 state grant. To no one’s surprise, that testing – and later studies – have uncovered a witch’s brew of hazardous materials in the soil, including benzo(a)pyrene, arsenic, lead, tar, ammonia, naphthalene and toluene.
“We’ve been all over the site for years,” said Pat Martin, Terre Haute City Engineering Department Chief Planner, who has guided the city’s cleanup efforts for the past several years.
Now that the soil and groundwater testing is finished, the next step is to “dig and haul,” Martin said. A contractor, to be named Tuesday by the Terre Haute Sanitary Board, will essentially dig thousands of tons of contaminated soil out of 20 acres of the property along Hulman and 13th streets. That soil will be dumped at the Republic Services landfill in southern Vigo County and capped, a costly process in itself, Martin said. Then new, clean dirt will be brought in. The whole process should be completed by next fall, he said.
The price tag for this first 20-acre cleanup is expected to be about $7.5 million. By the time the entire property is cleaned up – something that could take another five to 10 years – that total cost could reach about $16 million, Martin estimated.
The money for the “dig and haul” clean up is coming from the state of Indiana and the federal EPA, Martin said. It’s not yet known from where money to complete the full cleanup will come, he said.
The human toll
While the environmental damage from the plant is reparable, the suspected human damage is not.
Lives were cut short by the difficult working conditions at the plant, several former workers or their surviving family members believe.
Annetta Sweatt’s former father-in-law, Everett Sweatt Sr., was one of many African-American workers at the plant, which was located near a largely African-American neighborhood on Terre Haute’s south side. When Sweatt first met Everett Sr., she could see his ankles and noticed they were much lighter than the rest of his body.
“I thought he might have a skin disease” on his legs, Sweatt recalled. It turned out, Everett Sr.’s face and arms were simply a deeper shade of black due to decades of exposure to coal dust in the plant where he worked for 40 years.
Several surviving family members of the plant’s workforce remember the hacking and coughing their loved ones experienced during off hours, coughing up “black stuff,” as Beverly Bailey, the widow of James Franklin Bailey recalled. He worked at the plant for 32 years before retiring at age 70, she said. He passed away in 2009 at age 87. Her late husband had chronic lung problems.
“It wasn’t a very good environment to work,” she said, adding many of her husband’s fellow workers also had lung problems or died of cancer. “All these other men died from lung problems,” she said. “I know it was related to that. It had to be.”
Johnnie Johnson of Vigo County worked at the plant for about 14 years and sometimes asks himself why he did, he told the Tribune-Star recently.
“It was a bad place to work,” he said. “You was breathing that coal dust.” Even when the plant introduced respirator masks, “sometimes those things didn’t do any good,” he said.
John Steward, who managed the plant after holding several lower positions during a 40-year career, agreed “the job was dirty.” However, “it was one of the best-paying jobs in town,” Steward added. “Generally, I can’t say enough for the steel workers, the work they did. I just really can’t say enough about those guys.”
In addition to difficult working conditions, some former coke plant employees tell of less-than stellar environmental practices at the facility.
“That plant was an ecological nightmare,” said one former worker, who did not want to give his last name. He worked at the plant for a short time in the late 1980s. His father worked there for 24 years, he said. “His health was ruined from working in that plant,” he said.
“There were bubbling tar pits in the back of the plant,” he said. “It was an ecological and safety nightmare. I can’t believe taxpayers are on the hook for cleaning it up.”
Tar pits did exist on the plant property and at least one still does. On hot summer days, tar will bubble up through the ground in some areas, said Martin. Part of next year’s cleanup will involve capping the remaining tar pit and covering it with concrete, he said, adding the area where the tar pit exists will be off-limits for future building.
Two former workers, Ron Roberts and Bob Brenton, said they recall concealing asbestos from federal inspectors at the plant.
Roberts, now 69, believes a lung problem he currently suffers is the result of asbestos exposure.
“Our boss would come in [before a federal inspection] and say ‘Hide it,’” Roberts said of the asbestos at the plant. “We had to hide that.”
When the plant was dismantled, Brenton said the asbestos was simply placed in black plastic bags and thrown into ordinary trash receptacles to be taken to a landfill.
The Hulman family sold Indiana Gas and Chemical Co. to Welsh Coal and Coke Co. of New Boston, Ohio, in 1988. The new company would change the name of the business to Terre Haute Coke and Carbon. But the new ownership failed to make a go of the plant and was out of business in a few years.
Former employees who worked for both owners said Terre Haute Coke and Carbon was not as well managed as Indiana Gas and Chemical had been.
“You could see long-term investments weren’t being made there,” said Brenton, speaking of Coke and Carbon.
After Terre Haute Coke and Carbon went out of business, Hulman-owned Indiana Gas and Chemical sought a court-order to allow it back on the property to undertake environmental cleanup, said Doug Boles, a spokesman for Hulman & Co. in Indianapolis. The Hulmans spent between $7- and $10 million demolishing the structures and cleaning up the property, he said.
“They did it voluntarily,” Boles said of the Hulman-sponsored cleanup. Because of the Hulman’s Terre Haute connection, “they were trying to be good citizens,” he said.
Former plant manager Steward agrees the Hulmans paid millions to clean up the southern part of the property. That may explain why the southern section is far less contaminated than the northern portion, Martin said.
It was a job
The “coke plant” often employed between 125 and 150 people, according to various accounts. As domestic demand for coke declined in the 1980s, that number would fall, Steward said. That was part of a global trend. Today, almost no coke-producing plants remain in the U.S., he said.
“I know it wasn’t no easy place to work,” said Georgie Bailey, whose husband Campbell worked at the plant about 30 years. Like many of the employees of the plant, Campbell could walk to work, she said. He died in 1989 at age 70 with emphysema, she said. But, like many of his coworkers, Campbell also smoked cigarettes.
Campbell, known as C.L., didn’t complain about his job at Indiana Gas and Chemical, Georgie noted. Despite the difficult conditions, “it was a steady job,” she said.
While many former workers complain about their conditions, only one said he felt the pay was also poor.
“I made decent money there,” said Brenton. “It was the dirtiest job I ever had, but I had a family to raise.”
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or email@example.com.