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EPA's watchdog office wants to hear from residents about communication missteps at USS Lead site

A child's tricycle sits next to a sign placed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in July 2016 warning residents not to play in the dirt at the West Calumet Housing Complex. The city of East Chicago and East Chicago Housing Authority ordered the complex evacuated because of lead and arsenic contamination later that year and demolished the buildings in 2018.

EAST CHICAGO — Residents planning to attend a listening session June 26 hosted by EPA's internal watchdog office should prepare to discuss how they learned about the USS Lead Superfund site and whether the agency has adequately communicated about health risks posed by lead and arsenic contamination at the site.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Inspector General said last week it will take oral and written comments from 6-8 p.m. June 26 about "whether the EPA has been communicating in a manner that allows impacted communities to avoid exposure to harmful contaminants or substances."

The session will be at the East Chicago Urban Enterprise Academy, 1402 E. Chicago Ave.

Community group leaders and an environmental attorney welcomed the OIG's session, but also were quick to list communication failures by the EPA.

"East Chicago is an important story to unpack to see how EPA is doing on communication and follow through," said Debbie Chizewer, an attorney at Northwestern University's Pritzker Law School Environmental Advocacy Center. "It's an opportunity to add concrete details to the Office of Inspector General's analysis of where EPA is falling down and how it can do better."

'A vulnerable community is being hammered'

Only residents can contextualize their experiences, including how they first learned of the site and that it could pose a risk to their health; what they were told before they fully realized the risks; and how EPA has kept the informed of potential ongoing risks, she said.

"It will be really important for the Office of Inspector General to reveal its findings to the public and hold EPA accountable for what it finds," Chizewer said.

The OIG has limited resources, so its decision to study East Chicago "reflects the seriousness of the concerns around EPA's handling of communications at this site," she said.

Lori Locklear, a member of the Community Advisory Group, said she's happy the Office of Inspector General included East Chicago in its project.

However, she listed concerns such as the division of the site into three separate zones and the exclusion of zone 2 from the initial record of decision. She said EPA failed to inform the community it could form an advisory group and continues to exclude residents from the decision-making process.

Thomas Frank, of the Community Strategy Group and Calumet Lives Matter, commended any residents who may have had a hand in bringing the OIG to East Chicago, but said he remains disturbed by the process.

"We continue to get listening sessions," he said. "We don't get actions."

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"To me, a vulnerable community is being hammered and harmed by a thousand bureaucratic misactions," he said.

The Superfund site was designated more than 10 years ago, but EPA was aware of lead contamination in the area as early as the 1980s.

Frank said EPA downplayed the health risks until 2016, when it released contamination levels and the site became a "national crisis." Even then, EPA put up signs in zone 1 warning families not to let children play in the dirt, but did not place similar signs in zones 2 or 3.

Frank said EPA failed to properly engage the community, particularly in the early stages at the site.

"And now we're being held to those decisions, which are willfully and neglectfully insufficient and benefit the polluter," he said.

'No reason' residents at another cleanup site shouldn't speak out

EPA agreed to re-evaluate its cleanup plan for zone 1 after the city and the East Chicago Housing Authority evacuated West Calumet Housing Complex in 2016 and 2017 and demolished it in 2018.

The complex was built atop a former lead smelter, possibly without remediation, in the 1970s and contained soil with the highest levels of contamination. EPA is expected to release an amended record of decision for zone 1 soon.

The Office of Inspector General will seek input on EPA's communication regarding site sampling and monitoring results; indicators of human health risk; schedules and milestones for planned and completed site activities; safeguards in place for protecting human health; actions needed to avoid exposure to harmful contaminants or substances; and the overall timeliness and effectiveness of EPA’s communication regarding the site.

The OIG's project could lead to recommendations that may result in reduced exposure to harmful contaminants or substances and enhanced communication with the public, documents state.

The OIG is specifically looking at the USS Lead site, but that doesn't mean others — including residents in Hammond and Whiting near the former Federated Metals property — shouldn't attend and express their concerns, Chizewer said. Those residents also could contact the office on their own.

"I'm sure the USS Lead site is not the only site in the country that they're looking at, so there's no reason not to alert the agency to other problem sites," she said.

EPA has been excavating the most contaminated soil from around homes where young children and pregnant women live, but has not proposed Federated Metals as a Superfund site. It's unclear if soil will be excavated at properties were lead contamination is above the residential screening level but below the emergency removal threshold.

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Lake County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.