Calumet Lake Cluster Memories

Site: Lake Calumet Cluster

Author: Art M

Submitted: May 12, 2020

Visits: 3648

Tags: Calumet, Paxton, Alburn, US Drum

My name is Art M.  While emplyed by a suburban laboratory in the 1980’s, I worked in clean ups and sampling at several sites within the Calumet Lake Cluster, among other federal and state emergency action clean-ups in Illinois and Indiana.  Later, I was in the GC/MS department of several labs, and group leader in one before transitioning into lab client services.  I got completely out of the industry in 1992.


I worked at the Alburn Incinerator cleanup from shortly after it was shut down by the USEPA until a bit after all drum sampling was completed.  I’d like to say this was the summer of 1983 or 1984 but I’m not certain. I worked with Gulf Coast Laboratories which was subcontracted to Mid-America Environmental, a waste hauling and tank cleaning firm that was transitioning to environmental cleanups and remediation.  The lead contracting agency for the cleanup was Roy F Weston Corp.  The USEPA Region 5 guy in charge rarely showed up.  As I recall, he was in Louisiana a lot.  Kevin P from Weston was usually the lead guy on site.  In addition to various waste and drum removal, Mid-America workers did the drum and waste sampling under my direction (theoretically) and with my participation.  I was finishing up my degree, so I was smart enough to know what to do, but lacked credentials.  Thus I spent most of my time suited up on the dirty side of the contamination line. 

Sampling was done in hooded yellow Tyvek suits, with taped on gloves and boots. The lead man had a compressed air line and brass non-sparking tools, and had an SCBA just in case. The drum would be open by bung wrench if possible.  If not, sometimes the entire lid would be removed, but more often the lid would be pierced with a brass chisel making a 3/4” diameter hole. The samplers wore yellow Tyvek suits, taped boots and gloves and full face respirators.  The sampler was much more in danger of being overcome by fumes, hence his compressed air. The sampling was done mostly using glass tubes that were dipped into the drums, thumb pressure put on the end, and the waste put in a plastic sample bottle.  Many drums were solid, usually an amber solidified Toluene Diisocyante and were hard to sample. Temperatures that summer were often over 100 degrees, and our pulse and temps were checked by one of the workers who has designated the safety officer.  Presumably they had some training.  When it was hot, we would pour sweat out of our rubber boots at the end of the day.

Samples of about 6000 drums and various wastes were analyzed at our Gulf Coast Labs in suburban University Park primarily for PCB’s.  Drum samples were composited and one analysis would represent 10 drums.  If PCB’s were found, then the individual retained samples were analyzed or new samples were taken until the PCB drum was found.  As I recall, there were maybe half a dozen at most drums found with PCB’s. It could have been only two or three.

We were supposed to have showers on site to clean up daily and before meals.  Most of the time, our decontamination line was blue tubs with a degreasing solution into which we stepped and scrubbed our boots with a large brush.  That’s it.  There was a strong push to get this job done quickly.  By the time a trailer with showers came, I was almost done sampling.

The main health and safety worker with Mid America was once hospitalized with another coworker after doing some tank cleaning work through Mid-America either on a weekend or after his day at Alburn.  The two required blood transfusions but eventually recovered.  Occasionally the health and safety roll was performed by one of Mid-America’s owner’s sons, Mike H.  Mike H was usually very easy-going.  He adopted a hairless stray dog that used to hang out at the site, took it home and incurred big vet bills getting it healthy, only to have it run out into the road and get hit by a car.  Mike H was usually very congenial, but one hot day when progress was slow and we had all been given a pep talk about picking up the pace by people who were never in yellow Tyvek suits, Mike H cracked.  As safety officer, he usually sat in a chartreuse EL Camino converted into some sort of pseudo-ambulance.  We all communicated through headphones and voice-active microphones that would wrap around our throats. Mike H from the El Camino would read aloud excerpts from the letters sent in to “adult” magazines.  That’s what we often heard from him through our headphones while we worked.  But this day he was telling us, the sampling crew, to pick up the pace.  This wasn’t his role as safety officer.  He started saying he could do the sampling faster than anyone.  Then he left his EL Camino and without live air, grabbed some iron tools and started piercing drum lids for sampling. We all shouted at him stop.  He had only done a few when a flame leapt out of a newly-pierced drum lid.  “Leapt” is luckily an exaggeration.  This drum acted more like a huge alcohol lamp.  We all ran behind a berm in case of an explosion.  The flame burnt out.  Mike H, the son of one of the owners, never was on site again.  I worked with Mid-America on other projects and don’t think I ever ran into him except at a video store near where we both lived.

One other job I had at Alburn was to pack up the old lab chemicals into lab packs.  I had to wear an aluminized kevlar fire suit for this.  It was abysmal.  I met with some people at SCA, the then state-of-the-art incinerator down the road, to talk about lab-packing the chemicals in a way that they’d accept.  The chemicals were inventoried by me and packed in small blue plastic drums with Slik-wik, which was a corn-cob product that wouldn’t produce much ash during incineration.  I don’t recall any incredibly interesting chemicals that I packed.

While we were working at the cleanup site, one Mid-America’s older truckers recalled that during his early days in trucking, he had dumped liquid waste near Alburn.  He’d pick up liquid waste, get an envelope to give to someone, driving to a pit where he’d hand over the envelope and dump the contents of the truck into a pit.  This happened more than once and the pit would move.  The trucker was interviewed by the EPA or their representative who took down the information.

Kevin P and others, in addition to coordinating everything,  tried to trace PRP’s from the drum labels.  A man who worked for an auto maker identified as a PRP stopped by and told us he would pay for incineration of off-spec paint and get certifications of destruction from Alburn.  But one time, one of the workers asked if they had any more of “that green paint” to use on a fence.  It had run out.  While it may not seem important, this means a certificate of destruction was issued by Alburn for a material that wasn’t destroyed. He then successfully convinced the automaker use a different facility as I recall.


I also worked at a US Drum cleanup site adjacent to the Alburn site.  This was with another waste-hauler-turned-environmental-cleanup company out of NW Indiana.  I wasn’t there long as most drums were buried, and some were smoldering.


Part of my job at Gulf Coast Labs was occasionally to sample landfill monitoring wells.  Sampling at Paxton was always exciting in the early 1980’s.  Waste Management had CID landfill at that time, and it was visible from the expressway.  CID would burn off methane in metal smokestacks and were reclaiming some of it for fuel.  CID looked snazzy as far as landfills go.  Paxton was very different.  Paxton would sometimes ooze brown liquid from high on their hill, and a bulldozer would be sent up to patch it. 

Monitoring well sampling required time as a PVC bailer was repeatedly put down a PVC well and enough liquid (not water at Paxton) was evacuated from the well until a fresh sample could be taken.  Depth and temp measurements were taken. The man who ran Paxton would often follow us around in his truck and chat us up while we worked.  One time he found a piece of exhaust pipe, about 5’ long, and found an area on the ground that was bubbling up gas.  (Bubbling up gas was the norm at Paxton, whose well samples were more like other landfill’s leachate samples).  The man pounded the pipe into the ground over the bubbling gas, and then, saying something about wanting to be like CID, tried to light it.  This was the man running the landfill.  Luckily it did not light.


I have very mixed feelings about my work at these sites.  I haven’t been to the Chicago area in almost 30 years but I think I would be quite drawn to that area just to see if I could recognize it.  It was very urban yet desolate.