HAMMOND — EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, EPA Region 5 Administrator Cathy Stepp and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb made an unannounced visit to the former Federated Metals site Thursday before Pruitt authorized $1.7 million for removal of lead-contaminated soil at more than 25 homes north of the site.

Pruitt, Stepp and Holcomb arrived about 9:30 a.m. in an alleyway to the northeast of the facility at 2230 Indianapolis Blvd., in Hammond, and spoke with a woman in a driveway. The woman, who later said she owned the property, gestured during their conversation toward to a state-permitted lead-emitting facility still operating just beyond a bicycle path near the home.

The Federated Metals site is in the Robertsdale neighborhood, which straddles the Hammond/Whiting border. The plant and landfill are in Hammond, but EPA has been testing the soil at homes in Hammond and Whiting.

Pruitt and Stepp quickly left, but Holcomb stopped to take a question from local resident and former EPA attorney David Dabertin, who has harshly criticized the Indiana Department of Environmental Management's recent approval of a 10-year permit for Whiting Metals.

The officials later met with Whiting Mayor Joseph Stahura and toured the Whiting Mascot Hall of Fame, which is currently under construction. Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. was not included in the meeting, and said he was given no official notice of Pruitt's visit.

Holcomb and IDEM Commissioner Bruno Pigott later told The Times that Pruitt signed a memorandum after the site visit to conduct a time-critical removal action at homes where lead levels exceed 1,200 parts per million or sensitive populations, particularly children, live. Work will start in May, Holcomb said.

EPA's residential cleanup level at the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago is 400 ppm, and some states require soil cleanups at even lower levels. For example, California's screening level for lead in soil is 80 ppm.

The Federated Metals has not been proposed for the Superfund program. Instead, Pruitt authorized an immediate cleanup to address the most sensitive residents, Piggot said.

"We want to make sure the process is expeditious and residents are taken care of now," he said.

After the $1.7 million is exhausted, officials could consider proposing the site be added to the Superfund list for further cleanup, officials said.

Pigott said the memorandum Pruitt signed Thursday does not include funding for indoor dust cleaning, which has been offered to residents at the USS Lead Superfund site.

IDEM worked with Whiting and Hammond to test water at individual homes targeted for cleanup and found lead levels to be well below the action level, Pigott said. Lead in soil and lead in water are not related, but residents exposed to both face cumulative health risks.

Lead is a neurotoxin, and EPA has determined it is a probable carcinogen.

There is no safe level of lead exposure for children, who can experience developmental and behavioral problems and irreversible learning disabilities when exposed at even low doses.

'Just a Band-Aid?'

Dabertin said the visit by top federal and state officials was surreal.

"We're standing here listening to the hum of a facility that discharges lead," he said, referring to Whiting Metals.

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Federated Metals closed more than 30 years ago and emitted lead from a 300-foot smokestack, he said. The more likely culprits for pollution in yards a stone's throw from the facility are the companies IDEM has permitted to operate there in recent years, he said.

"Aren't they just putting a Band-Aid on something and not fixing it?" he asked.

Dabertin also criticized the governor for not meeting with McDermott.

"I think that the governor engaged in disingenuous political theater rather than have a meaningful discussion of lead contamination," Dabertin said. "There was no advance notice. No discussion. Just a cowardly ambush of a community in need of answers. All the state did today was slander a community in an attempt to pretend that it actually wants to do something about a real environmental issue."

Environmental activist and East Chicago resident Thomas Frank also observed the officials' unannounced visit.

"One of the problems we face is that they're doing this ad hoc," he said. "They're sending in high-level officials of offer promises, as if they're taking care of the problem, and that's not the case," Frank said.

Federal and state officials should be addressing the issue at the policy level, not by making promises to individuals, he said.

"They're not willing to put it into policies," he said.

EPA began sampling in 2016

The EPA in November 2016 began sampling at properties owned by Hammond and Whiting near the former Federated Metals site to determine if heavy metals from the plant might have contaminated nearby residential areas. 

In May, EPA sampled the landfill at the site and found a link between materials in the landfill and materials in soils to the north of the plant. The agency designated a residential sampling area north of Lake George Trail and south of Community Court and Fischrupp Avenue. The area includes a stretch of Indianapolis Boulevard, the Whiting Family YMCA, St. Mary's Byzantine Catholic Church and St. Adalbert Catholic Church.

Residents received their results in January, according to EPA's new website, for the site. The website includes references to the Superfund program, but state officials said Federated Metals is not being proposed for the Superfund list.

The property owner who spoke with Pruitt and other officials declined to talk with The Times before entering a car and leaving.

A dog inside the home barked, but no one living inside the home answered a knock at the door. A woman living down the street, who did not want to be named in a story, asked why all the "men in suits" had been outside. She was not aware of any soil testing by EPA.

IDEM in December approved an air permit for Whiting Metals without holding a public meeting, despite requests by the Hammond City Council and several residents.

Whiting Metals reclaims and blends lead and solder from scrap, records show. Its 10-year permit was renewed Dec. 22.

Remediation plans at the former Federated Metals site began in 1992 under EPA's Resource Conservation and Recover Act program.

A 10-acre landfill on the shore of Lake George was capped in 2005 as part of a six-year, $3.35 million RCRA cleanup. The site also includes the 9-acre former smelter.

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