east chicago west calumet superfund stock generic

An EPA sign warning residents not to play in the dirt or around the mulch is seen in summer 2016 at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago. 

Jonathan Miano, file, The Times

EAST CHICAGO — A federal judge has denied residents living in the USS Lead Superfund site the right to intervene in EPA’s cleanup efforts there. 

U.S. District Court Judge Philip Simon ruled Friday against the residents’ motion, arguing their request comes years after the EPA, the Department of Justice and the companies being held financially responsible already had negotiated and settled on a cleanup plan.

Residents have argued those living in the Superfund site were unaware of the severity of the contamination until summer 2016, when Mayor Anthony Copeland sounded the alarm and advised more than 1,000 people, including 600 children, to relocate from the lead- and arsenic-contaminated West Calumet Housing Complex.

Residents also have argued EPA repeatedly has modified the consent decree since that time, while claiming the case is closed and that Superfund statute prohibits intervention.

Simon argued in Friday's court ruling that EPA provided enough notice to families in 2012 when the agency held multiple public meetings, published the 2014 consent decree in the Federal Register, issued a news release and sent mailings to households.

“…What more could have been done by way of notice? Short of going door to door and personally telling each resident about the environmental hazard and the proposed remediation plan, it is difficult to imagine more effective notice,” Simon wrote.

Simon sided with with a prior opinion issued by Magistrate Judge Paul Cherry that the residents’ filing comes too late, while noting the "irony of the situation is not lost" on him. 

“I will admit that pointing to the citizens’ lack of timely action seems a bit unfair," he wrote. "The defendants in this case … polluted the areas in East Chicago going all the way back to the year 1900. What’s more, the EPA has known of the environmental harm in the affected area for several decades but only relatively recently took action."

“But for better or worse, the case law regarding intervention is clear,” he added.

Allowing residents to intervene now would be prejudicial to EPA, DOJ and the companies that “negotiated, settled and obtained judgment in this case,” he said.

Simon did note, however, EPA is re-examining the agency’s chosen remedy for the West Calumet Housing Complex site, which is set to be demolished beginning March 12.

Such a change in circumstances could be considered a major modification, Simon wrote, and “may lead to the Record of Decision being modified and so too the Consent Decree.”

“So I will cross that bridge when we get there. If a major modification is done to the Record of Decision and the parties seek to modify the Consent Decree as a result, then I can consider an intervention motion at that time anew,” Simon wrote.

Residents have the right to appeal the order with the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit as long as they file a notice to appeal within 60 days of the judge’s order.

It is unknown if residents will appeal.

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Public safety reporter

Lauren covers breaking news, crime and courts for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet covering government, public policy, and the region’s heroin epidemic. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.