A former industrial site on the southeast side of Portland is in the final stages of the clean-up process.

Crews were in the city this week to start the process of removing sections of land where lead levels were found to be above the acceptable limit at the former book bindery site on Wayne Street.

Orange fencing now surrounds sections of the property where excavators were used to remove dirt this week. Fleming Excavating of Decatur is handling the clean-up through the Indiana Brownfields Program.

A “brownfield” is an abandoned or inactive piece of real estate on which “expansion or redevelopment is complicated because of the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, a contaminant, petroleum, or a petroleum product that poses a risk to human health or the environment.” The program’s mission is to help redevelop properties that have environmental issues. That help includes educational sessions, technical assistance, legal advice and financial support.

“In this case, we were very fortunate that they felt like this was a very good project and Indiana Brownfields did fund Phase I, Phase II and did have money for the clean-up,” Portland Mayor Randy Geesaman said Friday.

The program was previously used to help clean up the former hatchery site across the street from the bindery. Other potential sites for Brownfields assistance include the former Swifty gas station and former Ken Kunkle car dealership and parking lot, both on Meridian Street, Geesaman noted.

The current clean-up is the final step in what has been a years-long process to clean up the property at 518 S. Wayne St.

The former book bindery building was demolished in spring 2013, only to have the rubble sit for about two years. During that stretch it was a frequent source of resident complaints and regular topic of conversation at city council meetings.

It wasn’t until May 2015 that Portland Board of Works approved a $66,800 contract with A. Landon Excavating and T.J.’s Concrete Construction to jointly remove the debris.

The city also paid to haul the material to Jay County Landfill, which accepted it for free.

The site then went through Phase I and Phase II environmental testing — Indiana Brownfields handled most of the cost while Portland paid for $18,000, Geesaman said — with SES Environmental of Fort Wayne recommending additional testing for contamination. Final results came back in early 2018 showing lead contamination that exceeded residential and commercial/industrial direct contact screening levels. At that time, SES recommended removing the affected areas of direct and replacing it with clean soil or pavement.

That is the process that is currently underway, with SES personnel on site Friday.

In between being torn down and the completion of environmental testing, the site, which is now owned by the city, was the target for possible development by Herman & Kittle Properties of Indianapolis. The firm initially proposed a three-story facility with 18 one-bedroom, 32 two-bedroom and five three-bedroom apartments designed to appeal to senior citizens.

After hearing initial comments from Portland City Council, the company modified its plan to make the complex “low-income” housing — those making $25,000 or less annually — and eliminate the three-bedroom apartments in favor of building three single-family houses adjacent to the complex. The project was estimated at $9.3 million.

Council rejected the proposal, raising a variety of concerns including whether it was the proper location for such an apartment complex. Of 28 Portland residents who expressed their opinions to council members, 26 were against the proposed complex.

Geesaman noted Friday that, given a recent housing study shows a need in Portland and that Herman & Kittle would have taken over responsibility for the environmental issues, he is disappointed that the city did not take advantage of the opportunity. But, he added, with that possibility in the rear-view and the site now in the final stages of clean-up, the property will be an asset for Portland.

“Now we have a site that’s marketable for housing or other things,” he said. “From a community standpoint, this is a site that has a lot of economic development opportunities.”