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The West Calumet Housing Complex. 

Times file photo

EAST CHICAGO — The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded the local housing authority $4 million in emergency grant dollars to tear down the West Calumet Housing Complex. 

The low-income public housing site, built on the footprint of a former lead smelter, is severely contaminated with lead, arsenic and other toxins. 

Hundreds of families were evacuated this past year after toxins were found in the dirt and the East Chicago Housing Authority announced plans to demolish. 

A HUD spokesman declined to comment Friday on the grant.

U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana; Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana; U.S. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville; and Gov. Eric Holcomb on Friday issued a joint news release welcoming the grant announcement.

“We’re encouraged by the administration’s continued support of clean-up efforts in East Chicago. (HUD) Secretary (Ben) Carson saw firsthand that continued investment in the area is needed and they followed through on that today,” officials said, noting Carson's visit to the city last month. 

HUD is awarding $4,000,790 to ECHA in the form of an "emergency disaster grant," according to an official grant notice provided by Young's office. 

"HUD is classifying the demolition as emergency work because of the limited capital funding that is currently available to ECHA which results in an unpreventable emergency endangering the lives and safety of the frail, elderly and disabled residents at the site," the grant notice states. 

The immediate threat — in this case, severe contamination of the soil — must be corrected within one year of funding, according to the grant notice. 

It's not clear why HUD's grant notice references families still living at the site. The complex has been entirely vacated since June.

Concerns about demolition, site future use

How the demolition will move forward is not yet known. A HUD spokesman said Friday the agency has yet to sign off on demolition plans, but noted a determination would be coming "soon." 

In May, HUD issued a preliminary finding that demolition was "warranted to protect human health" and would have "no significant impact on the human environment." Because of its findings, HUD determined an environmental impact statement — or a more thorough review of the site — was not required.

Residents, however, have raised concerns about the health risks posed to nearby neighborhoods during demolition. 

HUD's environmental review laid out three tear-down options: No action, partial demolition or complete demolition. A complete demolition — estimated at $6.8 million — would include removing hazardous asbestos, foundations and backfill, and razing all structures and infrastructure.

Debbie Chizewer, an attorney at Northwestern University Pritzker Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic and one of several people working pro bono on behalf of residents, said she hopes HUD "moves away from the complete demolition plan," which would only significantly disturb the soil. 

"It puts the community at great risk. It involves taking up 8 feet of contaminated soil and exposes contaminated ground water. There's no benefit to the community, only more risk of exposure," she said. 

The city in a statement on Friday said they preferred a complete demolition. 

"Obviously, the City wants the site fully cleaned up and it would be most advantageous to remove all structures as well as sidewalks, streets, etc.," a spokesman said. "However, the demolition will be bid out, with some consideration for some of these recommendations as alternatives or options."

Residents, in public comments submitted to HUD, outlined a number of problematic shortfalls in the demolition plans, including a lack of detailed descriptions of protection measures that will be used to monitor the air and to mitigate dust emissions and groundwater contamination.

Attorneys for ECHA on Friday said the local authority "is appreciative of the coordinated effort" of local, state, and federal governments.

The demolition will ultimately assist the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to identify an appropriate cleanup plan, ECHA attorneys said. The site is one of three neighborhoods in the EPA's USS Lead Superfund site, first listed in 2009. 

Excavation work in zone 1 has been put on hold pending EPA's updated feasibility study. 

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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.