Smith Projects’ storage tank spilled diesel fuel into Twin Oaks pond

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John Wells shows where the initial leak source happened. There was a fuel leak that made its way to Twin Oaks pond from Smith Projects, a company located right next to the neighborhood. The leak is being investigated by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

By Elissa Maudlin

MAXWELL — An above-ground storage tank diesel fueling system at Smith Projects has spilled fuel into a pond in the Twin Oaks neighborhood.

On April 27, a resident reported to IDEM Emergency Response a “petroleum sheen” seen on the pond. Before identifying the source, IDEM and Susan Bodkin, the county surveyor, placed petroleum-absorbent booms and a skirted boom into the pond to control the petroleum sheen.

On June 8, IDEM discovered the leak was coming from Smith Projects. Bodkin said the diesel fuel went through the gravel under Smith Projects’ pipes and then into the Twin Oaks pond’s pipe, adding her and IDEM did all visible inspections and couldn’t find the source of the leak before June 8.

The storage tank which leaked diesel fuel is located 500 feet south of the pond and, under IDEM’s directive, Smith Projects is in the process of a spill response to “delineate the extent of impacts,” IDEM said.

“IDEM is requiring an investigation of subsurface/groundwater impacts and assessment of all potential exposure pathways,” they said via email.

A big concern for Twin Oaks resident Heather Kesler was the well water, which she says she would drink a gallon of every day. IDEM gathered six samples in immediate proximity to the spill source, and results showed the spill having no impact on well water in immediate proximity, IDEM said.

Heather’s dream was to live in Twin Oaks to raise her and her husband’s kids. They moved onto the property in July 2012 before Smith Projects rezoned the property for industrial use.

For Heather, there was “anguish” when Smith Projects rezoned the property, a feeling which has now been brought back to the surface with the diesel fuel spill, she said.

John Wells, a resident who’s lived in Twin Oaks for 17 years, said he was the one who reported the issue to IDEM and said he could smell the fuel and saw a “rainbow effect” on the pond April 17. This “piqued [his] interest” and, when he saw there was a puddle of oil at the inlet of the pond April 25, he reported it a few days later.

In the past, Twin Oaks residents have gone before the Planning Board, Board of Zoning Appeals and the Hancock County Commissioners to protest the implementation and expansion of Smith Projects near their neighborhood. They are cited not wanting to hear, see or smell Smith Projects, and were worried about the value of their property going down, according to Board of Zoning Appeals meeting minutes from July 24 and 29, 2021, and the commissioner meeting minutes from October 4, 2016.

“Everything we said would happen has happened,” James Kesler, Twin Oaks resident and husband of Heather, said.

In a Board of Zoning Appeals meeting on July 29, 2021, he said he will see the building when the leaves fall from the trees and see the number of vehicles on the property, can hear the beds of trucks slamming down in the early morning and can smell burn pile smoke on Smith’s property.

Now, Heather said she could smell the diesel fuel in the pond when she went out the back of her house on a Saturday morning and Steve Walker, resident of Twin Oaks, said he could smell the fuel when he walked his dog one morning.

“This is the result of [rezoning the land] to industrial,” he said, referring to the spill. “When you change something to industrial next to residential, it shows you favor, you know, the industrial zoning over and above the residential assets that are already here in this neighborhood, as well as the agriculture … “

Proponents of the development and expansion of Smith Projects cited the need for a processing facility, and the attorney for Smith Projects argued that residents wouldn’t hear, see or smell the business, according to Board of Zoning Appeals meeting minutes from July 29, 2021.

Heather, Walker, Wells and the Fawver family who live in Twin Oaks said they have not been notified by Smith Projects about the leak. IDEM explained the water sample results to residents and noted the incident, as well as explained the incident to the Homeowners Association, IDEM said. Not all of the residents listed live on the pond.

“I think it should be the responsibility of [IDEM] and [the] Smith Project company to make sure this land is remediated prior to the condition of the petroleum diesel spill, as well as the pond … ” Walker said.

Smith Projects was contacted twice via phone and once via their website. Messages were left for Jon Smith, and the Daily Reporter was not contacted before publication.

“The fact is, regardless of who the petitioner is, friend or no friend, they are treated fairly and the request is considered in a way that takes all parties rights into account,” John Jessup, a commissioner since 2017, said via email.

Jessup counts Jon Smith as a friend, he said via email, since he rented tools from Jon Smith’s family’s hardware shop and Jessup framed Smith’s barn, and they have remained friends as a result. However, he said he doesn’t find it hard to separate friendships from decisions and makes decisions based on what will do “the most good for the most amount of people” and “the least harm to the least amount of people.”

Although commissioners are able to recuse themselves, Jessup said recusing often stems from monetary interest in a project or decision and it “wouldn’t be long in a tight-knit community like Hancock County before [people couldn’t] make any decision on any matter” if it was based on knowing or being friends with someone.

“ … Every true friend I have knows that my answer will not be biased to our personal friendship,” Jessup said via email. “It’s called integrity and Hancock County has been blessed for a good number of years with leaders on the [Board of Commissioners] that take integrity seriously.”

Jessup said the people who lose a dispute or decision only have to look at one perspective while the commissioners have to look at multiple perspectives. He also believes the processing facility does more good than harm and will benefit the agricultural community.

Bodkin wants the citizens of Twin Oaks to know she and IDEM were trying to help them when it came to the spill. She said they weren’t ignoring Smith Projects in the beginning but, before June 8, didn’t have the evidence it occurred on his property.

IDEM said when Emergency Response concludes their actions, the spill incident will be reviewed by IDEM’s enforcement section, which will determine what the next actions will be and if any violations occurred. If violations are found, IDEM can pursue informal resolutions, where IDEM issues a violation letter or enforcement action letter, which states the violation and necessary measures to correct the problem. If the problem is not corrected, the respondent can receive a Notice of Violation (NOV), which starts the formal enforcement process. NOVs often result in the assessment of civil penalties, and IDEM and the respondent have to sign an Agreed Order, which makes sure the respondent maintains “compliance with environmental statutes and rules.”

The investigation is ongoing, IDEM said, so it has not been determined whether Smith Projects has committed any violations and/or what those violations are if so.

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