EAST CHICAGO — The U.S. EPA has begun its first cleanup evaluation of the USS Lead Superfund site, a review typically done every five years so long as contaminants remain on site.
The start of EPA’s five-year review of the East Chicago marks a significant milestone in the community’s long fight for more protections for those living within the 322-acre site bounded by East Chicago Avenue on the north, East 151st Street on the south, the Indiana Harbor Canal on the west and Parrish Avenue on the east.
EPA officials said they are in the early stage of its review, in which they will contact community members and determine which documents and data to analyze. Site inspections are also part of the agency's review.
All findings will be summarized in a report scheduled for completion in October, the agency said.
EPA online records show the agency has conducted 11 such five-year reviews at Superfund properties in Indiana since the start of 2020, including the MIDCO II site in Gary.
Debbie Chizewer, managing attorney for EarthJustice's Chicago-based Midwest office whose past work includes representing residents of the E.C. Superfund site, said the EPA under President Joe Biden's administration must ensure all Superfund sites have "sufficiently protective remedies."
"The USS Lead Site is a case study in environmental racism. Governmental officials knew about the lead and arsenic contamination for decades but failed to act, and the low-income, Black and Latinx residents suffered grave harm as a result. President Biden has issued executive orders calling on all federal agencies to promote environmental justice and 'hold polluters accountable,'" Chizewer said.
Site history, scope
The U.S. EPA was aware of possible contamination in and around the old USS Lead factory site in the neighborhood as early as 1985, after the factory shuttered, but the mostly residential area was not slated for lead and arsenic cleanup through the agency’s Superfund program until 2009, following years of soil sampling.
Prior to the construction of the West Calumet housing complex, a lead smelter operated there. It was demolished and buried there years ago, but never properly capped or removed. When EPA sampled the area, it discovered the soil had some of the highest concentrations of lead seen anywhere in the country.
The EPA has addressed on-site contamination periodically over the years, though cleanup of yards didn’t began in earnest in 2016.
That summer, Mayor Anthony Copeland sounded the alarm and forced the evacuation of 1,200 residents from the West Calumet Housing Complex. Homeowners who lived in neighborhoods to the east were told they could remain in their homes while EPA cleaned up the contamination in their soil down to 2 feet.
According to the EPA, a review of soil remediation activities at the USS Lead site is necessary now because contamination above EPA standards remains in some areas at depths of at least 2 feet below the surface and under structures such as buildings, sidewalks and roads.
While the East Calumet and Calumet neighborhoods and the former Carrie Gosch Elementary School will be subject to EPA’s review, the demolished housing complex is not included because cleanup there is pending.
A second segment of the site, known as Operable Unit 2, consists of the USS Lead facility and groundwater beneath the entire site. That is also not subject to the review, according to EPA, because the remedial investigation is still in progress.
'Get this right'
Because the long-term health risks have been compounded by cumulative exposure here in the heavily industrialized city of East Chicago, Mark Templeton, an attorney with the University of Chicago Law School's Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, said it’s critical EPA officials “get this right.”
“And when I say get this right, it’s both the immediate task of a five-year review but also treating it more than a ‘paper and sampling’ exercise. They have to engage the community, where EPA has consistently underperformed, and look at this site from the cumulative exposure perspective,” Templeton said.
EPA officials previously have said the agency’s Region 5 office prioritized the USS Lead Superfund site by expediting cleanup of hundreds of yards, while not sacrificing quality.
But environmental activists like Thomas Frank, who lives a few blocks north of the Superfund site, said EPA prioritized the site because residents demanded better.
Residents fought hard for a better cleanup plan — some requests were answered and others ignored or unfulfilled, he said.
Frank said agencies at all level of government disregarded residents' desire to return West Calumet to residential use. The level of contamination that will now be allowed to remain on site, because its future use is industrial, is unacceptable, Frank said.
While EPA is often criticized by residents for their work at the Superfund site, EPA was applauded for sounding the alarm in 2017 when they released the results of a first-of-its-kind pilot drinking water study there.
The findings, however limited, showed issues with aging lead pipes and prompted the city to enact a phase plan to replace public and private lead pipelines.
EPA also went beyond the scope of the agency's original cleanup plan by testing basements of concerned residents for possible contamination and numerous home interiors for lead dust.
Still, advocates like Frank long argued EPA should have expanded the limited sampling to cover the entire Superfund site so the full scope of problems were clearly recorded and informed EPA on future cleanup decisions.
“There’s a lot of open-ended issues, and EPA continues to push forward,” Frank said.
Residents like Akeeshea Daniels, a mother of three boys, have yet to see any results of a pending groundwater study nor has anyone received word from the federal government about a revised health risk study that was scheduled for completion last year, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Daniels is worried COVID-19 has left renters and homeowners in the dark — as opposed to having opportunity to engage with EPA at public meetings.
"Since COVID, everything really went downhill. Everything is communicated to us by email or mail," Daniels said.
Daniels and Templeton said they have a number of questions about the scope of the five-year review, including whether new soil, water, air and dust samples will be taken, and which data and documents will be subject to review by the agency.
Absent new samples and a thorough review with meaningful community engagement, Templeton questions whether EPA can adequately review its cleanup of soil contamination when a study of area groundwater remains pending and ATSDR has yet to release publicly its revised health risk study of the site.
EPA told The Times the agency does not intend to collect additional data to assess its cleanup unless the need arises.
The review only examines the effectiveness of EPA's cleanup actions under its 2012 record of decision, the agency said.
Templeton, who is working closely with the resident-led Community Advisory Group, said he anticipates requesting information about the review from the EPA and inquire about the possibility for public hearings.
'Environmental justice lens'
Templeton said the review is a critical opportunity for the EPA, under new leadership from the Biden administration, to review the site's cleanup through an “environmental justice lens” while deeply involving the Calumet area residents in the process.
EPA told The Times it intends to make environmental justice a high priority under the Biden administration, including a review of its procedures to align with Biden's latest environment-related executive orders.
"EPA recognizes that there have been longstanding Environmental Justice issues faced by the surrounding community and will address the site in accordance with the newly issued executive orders and other authorities," EPA said.
Daniels said she is proud of the gains residents made over the last five years, including getting drinking water filters for residents, and some interior lead dust testing, but EPA could have done more to ensure residents are adequately protected.
Asked if EPA intends to communicate with residents during the COVID-19 pandemic through public meetings, the federal agency said it will continue to engage with the Superfund residents in meaningful dialogue "in a variety of settings."
Templeton said residents of the Calumet neighborhoods "really deserve to be commended for how they stood up for themselves and were strong and effective advocates with EPA" over the last five years.
“While not everything they wanted was accomplished, I firmly believe that EPA did more, and did it more quickly and more thoroughly, than would have been the case without the community advocating so strongly for itself," Templeton said.
The EPA initially thought would cost $29.9 million for cleanup across all three zones, including $22.8 million for zones 2 and 3, but those costs have more than quadrupled.