EAST CHICAGO — Light fixtures free of PCB components and drinking water fountains with lead-filtering systems will be installed at two of the city's schools, including one building where students from the USS Lead Superfund site were transferred last year, officials said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted visual inspections but did not test light fixtures to assess which might contain polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, the agency said. PCBs are potentially carcinogenic and can cause a wide range of adverse health effects.
EPA said it decided to replace fixtures at the new Carrie Gosch Early Learning Center and Block Middle School based on age and type of ballasts in use.
Heritage Environmental Services LLC agreed to install the new energy-efficient, PCB-free lighting and drinking water fountains with lead-filtering systems as part of a legal settlement unrelated to the city, EPA said.
The improvements follow the release in June of a University of Iowa study involving four East Chicago schools where PCBs were found. PCB levels at the schools were below standards requiring immediate cleanup. Researchers did not identify which four schools they tested.
According to the university, the four schools were not far from the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal, which is a known source of airborne PCBs. Samples collected at two of the schools were consistent with samples collected near the canal, but samples collected at the other two schools were determined to be caused by the presence of PCBs typically linked to window caulking and light ballasts.
East Chicago schools Superintendent Paige McNulty said this week the university tested Central High School, 1100 W. Columbus Drive; Block Middle School, 2700 Cardinal Drive; Lincoln Elementary School, 2001 E. 135th St. and Harrison Elementary School, 4411 Magoun Ave.
Lincoln will be torn down, and the district already has been making improvements to fixtures at Central High School, she said.
"We have been systematically replacing lighting with the new LED lighting over the years," McNulty said. "The only two schools that still needed remediation were the new Carrie Gosch Early Learning Center and Block, which they will be working on.
"Both of the schools they have identified are under the level requiring any remediation and not considered hazardous to ones' health, but — in an abundance of caution — we have opted to be proactive in regards to our students and staff," she said.
McNulty said the work will begin Monday and is expected to be completed in January. EPA will make a video of the work so that it can be shared with residents, she said.
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"I have been working closely with them since the University of Iowa study was released in June saying that four schools in the School City of East Chicago contain PCBs, chemicals known to cause cancer in humans, and that the source of the PCBs is most likely outdated building materials such as window caulking and light ballasts," McNulty said.
Tara Adams, a former resident of the West Calumet Housing Complex, said she, too, has been following the issue since the university study was released.
"I've asked about it at each of the school board meetings, and my grandson attends the Carrie Gosch Early Learning Center," she said.
She's glad the work will be done, but she wants more information about the source of the PCBs, she said.
Adams said she asked school officials during a recent meeting how PCBs ended up in Central High School, because it was built in 1986. Manufacturing of PCBs was banned in the United States in 1979, so Adams questioned whether lighting fixtures could be the source.
"I told the school board, 'I need you to ask EPA how is it we have PCBs in the high school after the manufacture of PCBs has ceased,'" Adams said. "They're looking at East Chicago in bits and pieces and not connecting."
EPA said it reviewed the results of the University of Iowa study and found PCB levels were below what it considers safe for children attending the schools.
"The EPA has been very helpful in analyzing our schools' needs and making a plan on how to replace the lights as needed," McNulty said. "They also have worked with the school district to make sure that it is not disruptive to our school day."
Heritage Environmental will provide about $290,000 for the improvements, she said.
EPA said Heritage Environmental was found to be in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act during a 2012 inspection at its facility in Indianapolis. As part of a settlement announced last week, Heritage agreed to pay a civil penalty for the violations, improve waste-handling procedures and perform a supplemental environmental project in East Chicago.
"I'm going to ask EPA and the University of Iowa to come out and retest once the work has been complete," McNulty said. "We believe this will take care of any PCB levels. We have been doing work proactively on our schools."