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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 3:30 pm

Councilmen concerned about North River environmental agreement

DAVE GONG | The Journal Gazette

Several Fort Wayne City Council members on Tuesday expressed reservations over an environmental agreement they're asked to discuss next week for the city's North River property. 

The agreement, which would hold the site's current owners harmless for any future environmental cleanup costs on the property, was introduced during Tuesday's meeting and will be discussed at council's Nov. 21 meeting. To meet the city's deadline for the purchase agreement, council would have to grant final approval by Nov. 28. The site is currently owned by the Rifkin family and is the former home of metals recycling company OmniSource. 

Concerns raised Tuesday include the fact that council members have not been able to see the results of an environmental study on the property. Insights contained in that report, several council members said, would be useful to determine the condition of the land, the level of remediation necessary and the estimated cost. City officials have said the study's findings cannot yet be released because of a non-disclosure agreement. 

"If you fully indemnify someone, there's no way insurance coverage applies. It should have been written so it said it would indemnify all out-of-pocket expenses or anything over and above insurance expenses," Councilman Michael Barranda, R-at large, said earlier Tuesday, noting that he hopes city officials revisit the agreement. "Just making a couple tweaks, making sure it says the city's indemnification would be secondary to whatever insurance coverage would apply."

If passed as written, Barranda said, it could cost taxpayers "millions of dollars that could have been possibly tapped into insurance proceeds." 

Although the measure was introduced in a 7-2 vote, council attorney Joe Bonahoom said it's possible city officials could amend the proposed agreement to make sure it does not prohibit the filing of an insurance claim for environmental cleanup. Barranda was joined by Councilman Paul Ensley, R-1st, in opposing introduction.

Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd, said although he wants to support purchasing the property and redeveloping it for future use, questions surrounding the environmental study and other issues related to the project will have to be answered before he can vote for it. 

"We need to remember that we are ultimately acting on behalf of the public and asking the public to assume a liability," Jehl said. "And for the context of the issue to be framed that the public should not in any way, shape, or form know what liability you're getting them into really needs to be tread upon much more lightly than it's been."

Councilman Glynn Hines, D-6th, agreed, noting that it may be time to pump the brakes. Hines especially lamented the short deadline and the lack of information regarding why the environmental agreement is necessary. 

"I had a conversation today with representatives of the city who said it's not that bad," Hines said. "Not that bad, is that $100 million, is that $50 million or is that $10 million? We don't know what 'not that bad' even means."

dgong@jg.net