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EAST CHICAGO — Superfund site residents shared similar worries after learning Thursday a city contractor is, in some cases, only replacing a portion of homeowners' lead pipes — defeating the purpose of reducing lead exposure in an already vulnerable community. 

Hundreds of homes in the lead-and arsenic-contaminated USS Lead Superfund site have received full lead service replacements under East Chicago's multi-million project since September, but that's not the case for many families with finished basements.

"The contractor won't tear out walls. It's not in their contract," George Kovacich, project oversight manager, explained at a public meeting at Riley Park when pressed why Hasse Construction isn't carrying out full replacements in every home. 

Partial lead service line replacements pose potentially long-term risks to homeowners, according to the EPA

Connecting new service lines to aged lead lines causes corrosion and further exposes homeowners to lead in their drinking water, said Debbie Chizewer, an attorney at Northwestern University's Pritzker Law School Environmental Advocacy Center. 

"Partial lead service line replacement is universally condemned as a risk because it increases the amount of lead in the water," Chizewer said. 

Maritza Lopez, an East Chicago resident, said she signed an access agreement with the city several months ago stating the city contractor would replace all of her privately owned lead service lines — not only a portion.

Now, an amended contract, made available to residents at Thursday's meeting, states the department may replace "a portion or any part of property owner's lateral service line."

"I'm angry and frustrated because that was not disclosed and that was not in the contract that I signed," Lopez said. 

In May 2017, the East Chicago Water Board approved a $3.1 million plan to replace lead and galvanized steel water service lines at nearly 400 homes in the USS Lead Superfund site. The money was part of an $18 million borrowing package the city is using to fund various improvements to its water system.

Hasse Construction was hired for phase 1 of the project, and has replaced 269 lead lines in East Calumet, or zone 3 of the Superfund site, as of July 31, Kovacich said. The city has enough money to service another 115 homes in zone 3, with estimated completion in November.

Kovacich said homeowners can tear out basement walls so Hasse Construction can replace all the lines, but it would be at their own expense. 

An upset Lopez told the city's water department they should have considered families with finished basements when bidding out the project. Many living in the East Chicago neighborhoods can't afford to tear out walls and make repairs. 

"The ones being penalized are the ones living in the Superfund site because a lot of us live on a fixed income," Lopez said. 

Calumet City Plumbing was recently awarded a $1.1 million contract for phase 2 of the lead line replacement project, which covers about 380 homes in zones 1 and 2 of the Superfund site. 

East Chicago Water Department Director Winna Guzman urged residents to sign access agreements if they have not yet done so. Those who have, but are living in zone 1 and 2, were asked to be patient until the city can begin phase 2 of the project. 

Jackie Brown, a zone 2 resident, said she was disappointed after the meeting. 

"I don't think any wait time is acceptable. We're living through soil contamination and possible airborne contaminants and all kinds of things I can't even pronounce, and to delay or half-do lead service line replacements is just unacceptable to me," Brown said. 

City officials have previously said they need more community buy-in in order for the program to be a success. Chizewer, however, noted at Thursday's meeting that some residents are calling water department numerous times before getting a return phone call. 

"Maybe some work is also needed on your end," Chizewer suggested to city officials. 

For more information, residents can call the East Chicago Water Department at 219-391-8469.

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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.