- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 8, 2014

KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) - Getting grass to grow on the city’s biggest environmental cleanup site has been a struggle.

It’s been 2½ years since plans were announced for a new soccer complex along West Markland Avenue, but there’s still no established turf, and the Kokomo Soccer Club has yet to paint a line or kick a ball on the 60-acre site.

Anyone walking out onto the site now will come back with mud-caked shoes. The grass grows in furrows, with plenty of bare dirt in between.

Even when it hasn’t rained for days, geese are constantly out on the site, lounging around marshy areas where water won’t drain. Most of the site is in a flood plain.

When the soccer complex plans were announced in 2011, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials announced they were planting grass seed suitable for recreational fields on the site, and city and Kokomo Soccer Club officials said kids would be playing there by August of 2012.

But 2012 was a drought year, and the grass never got established. Then 2013’s spring came and went without much improvement.

Last fall, city workers reseeded, aerated and fertilized the area in hopes of better results this spring. The hope, once again, is that the site will be ready for the fall soccer season.

Club president Amy Pitzer told the Kokomo Tribune (http://bit.ly/1qg2AOy ) this spring may decide whether the club maintains its commitment to a problem-plagued site, or whether it’ll seek a different area for expansion.

“It’s just now starting to get some sunshine, so over the next month, it’s going to be telling, if we’ll invest more time and money into it,” Pitzer said.

Back in October 2011, there was considerable excitement about the site, which sits at Berkley Road and Markland Avenue, just west of the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

City, state and federal officials gathered on what was once part of the former Continental Steel property to announce that part of the environmental brownfield site would be repurposed into soccer fields.

But there were obvious problems, including the fact that, at the time, the city didn’t own the land.

The area has no irrigation, and it’s unclear whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will allow the soil cap - which separates the public from the environmental hazards buried beneath - to be disturbed for subsoil drainage.

Then there’s the soil itself, which still hasn’t produced enough grass to cover the site.

When the EPA hired Bowyer Excavating, Peru, to install the soil cap, the bid specifications called for topsoil to be part of the 24-inch thick layer.

Instead of actual topsoil, however, Bowyer was allowed to install a 24-inch layer of clay-heavy fill dirt, with some peat moss tilled in.

EPA officials said they allowed the peat moss “due to the difficulty of obtaining enough topsoil for an area so large,” and said the peat/soil mixture met the EPA’s definition of topsoil.

The bid specs called for “natural, friable, sandy loam” from a well-drained area. An amendment to the definition indicated the requirement could be met by “incorporating sand, peat, manure, or sawdust” to produce the required composition.

The tilled peat moss method was also used for the other areas of the Continental Steel site under a soil cap, including the area where the Main Plant sat and the area around the former Markland Avenue Quarry.

Even though the EPA didn’t require actual topsoil to be used on the site, city officials aren’t blaming the feds.

That’s because the soil cap was finished by August 2011, and the city didn’t come out with plans for the soccer complex until October 2011.

Kokomo city engineer Carey Stranahan said the city has been trying to remediate some of the soil problems and said the city is committed to the project.

“We’re going to make it work,” Stranahan said. “In no way do we think the EPA wasn’t doing a good job.”

This spring, city workers will finish the parking lot for the fields and will begin building a concession stand for the club. EPA officials said they are looking in to whether the agency can help the city explore options to improve grass growth as part of the ongoing maintenance activities at the site.

Club officials, meanwhile, are pursuing grant funding to help offset the cost of the project, and Pitzer said she wants to try to start using the site this fall, even if only one or two fields can be established.

The club needs the space. For years, teams have been practicing at various fields around Kokomo in an attempt to lessen wear and tear on their main fields at the corner of Defenbaugh Street and Berkley Road.

Club officials will match grant funding from the Indiana Tourism Board to build the concession stand, which will sit to one side of the capped area. Because the cap can’t be disturbed, building footers can’t be installed within the capped area.

The concession stand is a key component of the complex and a necessary feature if the soccer club one day hosts a tournament at the site.

“I know it sounds silly, but having flushable toilets is a huge deal when you’re trying to have tournaments,” Pitzer said.

Club officials are also discussing how they can help to improve the grounds, she added.

“We’re making a commitment as a club, but we’re probably going to have to get some help to make it work,” she said.

When Continental Steel was operating, the steel mill would pump spent acid - known as “pickle liquor - into 10-acre drying beds.

As part of the plant cleanup, the area which contained the drying beds, also known as acid lagoons, was capped.

If the city can get some grass to grow, the soccer fields would sit directly above the old acid lagoons.

Grass hasn’t grown on the site for a long, long time.

The drying beds were used as a way to allow oxidized metals to precipitate out of the spent acid. Once some of the metal had dropped out of the pickle liquor, the remaining liquid could be pumped to an onsite wastewater treatment plant, where it could be further neutralized and cleaned before being released into the Wildcat Creek.

But the process left decades’ worth of oxidized metal precipitate caked at the bottom of the drying beds.

The plant closed for good in 1986, and 25 years later, as the EPA readied the site for capping in 2011, grass had not taken root on the rust-colored crust of the drying beds.

Remediating the site has cost the federal government about $8.5 million, according to EPA project manager Nabil Fayoumi. The cleanup was part of a 12-year effort which has cost close to $40 million. All but $5.1 million of that total, which was paid by the state of Indiana, came from federal funds.

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Information from: Kokomo Tribune, http://www.ktonline.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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