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Contaminated Soil Excavation

East Chicago resident Mary Poe watches from her porch in October as EPA contractors excavate contaminated soil from her yard in East Chicago's East Calumet neighborhood. Poe is urging residents to ask EPA to sample basement dust after receiving higher than expected results for her home.

EAST CHICAGO — Residents of the USS Lead Superfund site objected this week to a U.S. District magistrate judge’s recent ruling that denies them the ability to intervene in court over EPA’s ongoing cleanup of lead- and arsenic-contaminated properties.

Judge Paul Cherry argued in his May 2 order that residents failed to file in a timely manner despite having had sufficient notice of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's cleanup plan in 2012 and the subsequent consent decree filed between EPA and the companies responsible for the pollution two years later.

EPA issued news releases and sent out mailers, Cherry argued, and provided residents opportunity to chime in during public comment periods. A local newspaper published an article about the consent decree, Cherry added. 

The 2014 consent decree — which secured $26 million for cleanup — was negotiated between the EPA and companies responsible for the pollution. 

"Motions to intervene must be timely," the judge argued, "...Intervention at this time would render worthless all of the parties' painstaking negotiations."

David Chizewer and Emily Gilman, of law firm Goldberg Kohn, Debbie Chizewer and Nancy Loeb with Northwestern University Pritzker Law School's Environmental Law Clinic and Mark Templeton with University of Chicago's Abrams Environmental Law Clinic — who are working pro bono on behalf of residents — pushed back in an objection filed Tuesday.

"Indeed, blasting a 'fact' sheet to the community, issuing a press release subject to the whim of reporter and resident reading habits, and resorting to notices in the Federal Register are not adequate or realistic ways to inform under-resourced individuals about the specific level and extent of contamination tainting their properties," attorneys wrote.

Given those facts, it comes as "no surprise" that residents shocked and panicked when they were told, for the first time, in July, that families in the nearby West Calumet Housing Complex would have to permanently relocate due to contamination that EPA had been studying since 1985, the attorneys said.

The EPA has said it would alter its cleanup plan and ongoing groundwater study based on the results of a new health assessment being conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. 

"The clean-up remedies are changing and without a voice in the legal proceeding which governs those changes, the residents lose out on the ability to determine their own fate," the attorney wrote. 

Residents in the city's East Calumet and Calumet neighborhoods first filed the motion to intervene in November, seeking a formal role in a cleanup process they say EPA has taken far too long to execute. 

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Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.