BARBERTON, OHIO — Bill Lynch can turn barren land into lush green grass and trees. He can transform a desolate landscape into a recreation area where families will be able to hike and picnic.
Lynch isn't a magician — he's principal project engineer of environmental affairs for Pittsburgh Plate Glass Industries Inc.'s Barberton plant. The facility is the world's largest producer of plastic resins for eyewear lenses. The firm makes the widely used CR-39 resin, an allyl diglycol carbonate.
Lynch, with the help of Ted Ladd, manager of environmental affairs, and a team of PPG engineers, has helped to transform a desolate area in Barberton known as Lime Lakes through a project PPG calls A Return to Nature.
The Lime Lakes aren't full of fish and ducks. In fact, the lakes cover 600 acres composed of dry, white, barren limestone, creating an almost lunarlike landscape.
At the turn of the century, PPG, the nation's first commercially successful plate glass producer, needed synthetic soda ash to make glass. In Barberton it found abundant reserves of limestone and salt, the key ingredients for soda ash.
The Lime Lakes facility, built in 1899, produced soda ash for plate glass until the early 1970s, when PPG discontinued the operation. But during those years, liquid and solid waste products—mostly a lime and water slurry mixed with sand and salts — were pumped from the soda ash operations to settle into the six Lime Lakes ponds. The slurry water was drained from the lakes and evaporation also contributed to the drying process.
The resulting fine-grained lime soil is too alkaline and lacks nutrients to support vegetation.
``We didn't want this place to stay the way that it was,'' Lynch said. ``We wanted to contribute to the community, and we wanted to help to protect the environment. We wanted to do the right thing.''
Lime Lake 4, a 117-acre reclamation project, was completed in 1997. PPG currently is working on developing the 56-acre Lime Lake 3 and 120-acre Lime Lake 5. The Return to Nature project includes the eventual reclamation of all six lakes.
PPG scientists have developed methods to make soil in which vegetation thrives. They found that closely controlled sludge, high in nutrients and commonly used as fertilizer, could be used to create soil for vegetation in reclaiming the Lime Lakes sites.
Lynch said the sludge is trucked in from surrounding cities and combined with lime. The sludge is spread by trucks to create a natural-looking landscape, with rolling hills and valleys.
``We do have standards for the types of sludge we allow for the project,'' Lynch said. ``The cities that transport their sludge to us know that there are strict regulations on what we will accept.''
PPG found that prairie grasses, some trees, and wildflowers flourished in the sludge soil, which is fertile enough to support most types of vegetation because it is saturated with calcium chloride and magnesium.
After years of testing and planning, by 1985 PPG was ready to spend about $2 million on the reclamation.
``PPG knew this project would drain its assets to some extent,'' Lynch said. ``We knew it would take money to recreate this place, but we felt it was our duty.
``PPG is breaking new ground with this project,'' he added. ``It would be great if some other plastics companies would follow our lead. We're really trying to clean up after ourselves.''
Bill Skowaronski, district chief for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency in Twinsburg, Ohio, said he feels the Lime Lakes reclamation is special because PPG was not required to clean up the area.
In 1983 the Ohio EPA reviewed the Lime Lakes area as a potential Superfund site. Lime Lakes did not qualify for the federally funded program, but it did fit under RCRA—the Recreation Construction and Recovery Act—which aids companies that want to become involved in the reclamation of their own industrial sites.
``They weren't under any orders to do this,'' EPA's Skowaronski said. ``They sought us out and asked us to become involved with the planning and the research. The idea to take this project on was their own. It is great to see a corporation show such stewardship.''
Skowaronski said EPA was very involved with the project at its conception but has not done much follow-up research on the reclamation.
``We have tested ground water around that area over the years that shows improvement, and the cleanup of the lakes has also improved the quality of water that flows through the Tuscarawas River,'' which runs through the site, he said.
The studies found a substantial reduction in total dissolved solids like salt and chlorides. Even though many community members had doubts when the project first started, PPG has done a good job to inform and educate citizens about the progress of the project, he added.
``PPG answered questions and because of that they have gained lots of support from the community and from us,'' he said.
``We had to let the community know that we weren't going to just go away,'' Lynch said. ``This project couldn't have been completed without their support.''
Acres of gray sludge slowly have turned to green grass. Voles, rabbits, foxes, hawks, owls, pheasants, herons, and many types of insects are now calling the Lime Lakes home.
``The animals seem to be doing very well here,'' Lynch said. ``The ducks have made their home on the ponds, the birds have nested in the trees and the voles have multiplied everywhere.''
After 12 years of hard work, the long-term reclamation of Lime Lake 4 is almost where Ladd and Lynch had hoped it would be.
``Science teachers and students from around the area are really taking advantage of this project and they are studying and learning about the reclamation,'' Ladd said. ``We have groups come for field trips, and we hope to even build a visitors center at some point so we can show pictures of the reclamation from start to finish.''
Ladd added that geology students from several Ohio universities, including Ohio State University and the University of Akron, have completed experiments and used the facility to research the unique soil and limestone.
The Lime Lake 4 reclamation also has become a success in the eyes of conservationists and environmentalists.
``We've received the Conservationist of the Year Award from the Summit Soil and Water Conservation District and we've also received EPA awards,'' Lynch said.
Besides CR-39 resin, PPG makes Teslin-brand sheet, a synthetic printing material used for applications like menus, identification cards and children's books. The Barberton plant also makes safety films and coatings for aircraft windshields, amorphous silicas to flatten and thicken paint varnishes and chemicals used to make pharmaceuticals and pesticides.