It's time to dig down deep.
The city will drill three holes along the Paper District's shoreline as early as next week to determine if the coal tar plume has seeped into the bedrock beneath Sandusky.
The plume is a potentially hazardous, molasses-like blob lurking beneath the Paper District and surrounding areas.
As part of the project, an environmental consultant will also compare samples from the Deep Water Marina, located north of Lawrence Street, to samples from the coal tar plume.
That way, officials can determine if coal tar has already reached Sandusky Bay, said Karla Auker, brownfields project manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Once officials determine where the coal tar is, and whether it has seeped into the bedrock, they can devise a containment and cleanup plan.
"There's a lot of different remediation options," Auker said. "Right now, we're just gathering information to determine the best steps going forward."
"Coal tar" is a description of a viscous substance made up of many different chemicals. Coal tar could contain carcinogens such as benzo (a)pyrene, or chemicals of lesser concern such as naphthalene, said Bob and Ruth Haag, the city's environmental consultants.
Previous studies say Sandusky's plume contains both.
The drilling, as well as the analysis of the plume, will be funded using a $400,000 U.S. EPA grant awarded to the city in 2007. The investigation, however, will likely cost between $25,000 and $80,000, according to the Haags.
If the investigation determines coal tar is in contact with Sandusky Bay, the EPA could clean it up itself through a process called Superfund.
Under Superfund, the EPA can go after several different parties to pay for the cleanup. That could include the city if the EPA deems it partially responsible.
But Auker said as long as Sandusky continues to stay proactive in containing the problem, Superfund won't occur.
"It's in the city's brownfields program now, and as long as they keep taking proactive steps, that's where it will stay," she said. "We want it to stay in the brownfields program."
As part of President Barack Obama's Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the city applied for $1 million in January to start cleaning up the plume.
Congress added the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative into the 2010 budget, committing $475 million to the program.
The city will likely find out next month if it won the grant.
The coal tar cleanup falls in the initiative's objective to improve the health of the Great Lakes and improve the quality of life for those who use them.
"You know people who say, 'I would never swim in the bay?'" Bob Haag said in January. "This is to remedy that. It's about cleaning the Great Lakes to make it a healthier place to live."