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EAST CHICAGO — EPA officials on Saturday said it could take up to another three years to excavate the remaining contaminated yards in the USS Lead Superfund site.

Beginning in May, EPA staff and contractors will be back on the ground digging up lead- and arsenic-contaminated yards in the Calumet and East Calumet neighborhoods (weather permitting), Sarah Rolfes, a remedial project manager for EPA, said during EPA's community meeting Saturday at the old Carrie Gosch Elementary School.

In Zone 2, or Calumet, EPA plans to excavate anywhere between 120 and 140 yards. EPA will dig up 111 yards in Zone 3, or East Calumet, wrapping up much of the work in that zone. 

EPA also plans to install additional groundwater monitoring wells in the residential neighborhoods and collecting samples at the USS Lead facility site this summer.

West Calumet cleanup on hold

Work in Zone 1, or the former West Calumet Housing Complex, remains on hold as EPA undergoes an amended feasibility study and the city weighs future land use options. 

The federal agency has said it will clean to residential standards, but Albert Kelly, a representative for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, told reporters there has also been commercial interest in the property.

"We're going to do whatever is the practical end-use but both of which will meet standards and both of which will be safe," he said. 

EPA is still evaluating cleanup alternatives for Zone 1 as part of an amended feasibility study. The agency expects to release the proposed cleanup plan later this summer.  

Asked by The Times if the EPA would be comfortable allowing private developers to build new housing on the former West Calumet property, Kelly said he couldn't say. 

"Technically the level of lead you can say is acceptable is zero. Zero. So it's hard for me to say 'Well, if you going to build on a lead site of any kind, are we going to bless that? I can't say we're going to bless that but I can say we can remediate it to the acceptable level based on what the science is today."

Demo site concerns raised

At least one resident and Debbie Chizewer, an attorney at Northwestern University Pritzker Law School's Environmental Law Clinic representing the East Chicago Calumet Coalition Community Advisory Group, asked if EPA planned to investigate why air monitors went off at the West Calumet demolition site several times last week due to off-site sources. 

EPA Remedial Project Manager Tom Alcamo said while the action level is relatively low — 68 parts per million — the agency doesn't believe there's a need to further investigate unless it becomes a recurring issue.

Amereco Engineering's John Blosky said his firm doesn't plan to investigate the source because it is outside the scope of the firm's work. 

Cathy Stepp, who was recently appointed by Pruitt to head EPA Region 5, said she was impressed by the residents who brought concerns to the EPA. 

She also commended her EPA Region 5 team for its commitment to educating residents about the ongoing work at the site. 

"These are really emotional topics and it's really difficult, a lot of times, to be able to talk through data and science. I'm very impressed," she said. 

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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.