EAST CHICAGO — In the years since EPA first designated the Calumet neighborhoods a toxic Superfund site, the city failed to evaluate or mitigate hazards before carrying out some federally funded housing projects, a HUD investigation has found.
Federal officials said the move may have endangered families’ health and safety.
On Thursday, the city released a statement largely placing blame on the federal government, alleging EPA gave East Chicago the green light on projects that did not disturb the soil and the Department of Housing and Urban Development rules lack clarity about soil testing.
HUD's findings were uncovered during an inspection of city environmental reviews of properties from 2009 to 2015.
Environmental reviews entail “reviewing a project and its potential environmental impacts to determine whether it meets federal, state and local environmental standards,” HUD said.
The April 2017 review focused on projects — such as rehab work, new construction and demolitions — that were paid with Community Development Block Grant and Home Investment Partnership dollars, according to a Dec. 5 letter from HUD to the city’s Department of Redevelopment. The letter was obtained by The Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.
HUD records show the city failed to assess or mitigate environmental hazards before carrying out projects.
“In some cases, the (environmental reviews) identified the property’s location in the (the Superfund site),” HUD stated. “... However, the sites were not further investigated to rule out potential impacts, or mitigated when contamination was confirmed, to satisfactorily address the health and safety of housing occupants.”
HUD requires project sites be free of "hazardous materials, contamination, toxic chemicals and gases, and radioactive substances, where a hazard could affect the health and safety of occupants or conflict with the intended utilization of the property.”
"Particular attention should be given to any proposed site on or in the general proximity of such areas as dumps, landfills, industrial sites, or other locations that may contain or have contained, hazardous wastes," according to HUD.
HUD's site contamination policy requires site screenings, remediation when contaminants are identified, and an EPA site closure letter prior to occupancy.
“There’s a reason that these regulations exist,” said Emily Coffey, staff attorney of the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which has been advocating on behalf of public housing residents in the Superfund site.
“And the city of East Chicago had an obligation to make sure they understood those obligations, especially when there is such a known environmental hazard in a community that the city undoubtedly knew about."
Focus on 24 HUD-assisted properties
The city's statement argues HUD's regulations, while broadly written to include all possible contamination, "in practice ... do not specifically call for any testing for lead in soils around project sites."
Staff was not aware of specific contamination "at any of these sites, so the statement that contamination at these sites was confirmed is false and misleading," the city said.
"Based on discussions with the US EPA, the City's Redevelopment Department was informed that projects that did not disturb the soil within the Superfund boundaries could continue without soil testing," the city said.
A spokesman for HUD said the department's Dec. 5 letter "outlines our position on the City’s compliance."
"The City has responded to HUD’s initial deadline regarding contacting the EPA and still has time to respond to the findings outlined in the letter. HUD’s overall goal is compliance with Part 58 and we will continue to work with the City to ensure compliance," the spokesman said.
The Environmental Protection Agency did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.
HUD's review centers on 24 HUD-assisted properties within the EPA-designated hazardous Superfund site — 14 of which were identified as still requiring remediation at the time of the April review.
HUD on Dec. 5 directed the city to contact EPA within 15 days to determine if interim controls were in place at the 14 contaminated properties.
A chart provided by the city shows eight properties on HUD's list were remediated within the last year.
Federal officials directed the city to help EPA gain access to properties where homeowners have denied access. If the homeowners ultimately do not allow EPA access to put interim controls in place, HUD told the city, East Chicago must repay HUD project funds.
HUD: City must disclose other HUD projects in Superfund site
The majority of East Chicago's housing stock was built before 1978 and likely contain lead paint, but the Superfund site is unique as families living there have been exposed to cumulative health risks — with lead in the dirt, dust and, in some cases, paint or drinking water.
The Superfund site was first listed on the EPA’s National Priorities List for cleanup in 2009.
EPA began investigating the site in the 1980s but cleanup did not begin in earnest until summer 2016, when Mayor Anthony Copeland sent letters to more than 300 families at the West Calumet Housing Complex telling them they had to relocate.
The 322-acre Superfund site consists of three zones — the now-vacated complex and Carrie Gosch Elementary School and two residential neighborhoods to the east — is bounded by East Chicago Avenue, East 151st Street, the Indiana Harbor Canal and Parrish Avenue.
HUD said city staff did not fully evaluate impacts of site contamination for rehab and new construction projects there from 2009 to 2016, and consequently, “contamination could have affected the health and safety of occupants of these properties."
The city said the work conducted at sites mainly was limited to "grass cutting, appraisal work, other non-construction or construction that occurred prior to the Superfund designation." In many cases, the city installed new doors or windows, reducing the potential of lead infiltration into the home, the city said.
"It was also the City's understanding that the EPA would do testing and remediation as it determined was needed. The City's Redevelopment Department continued to conduct other required tests such as for lead paint testing."
As part of its review, HUD directed the city to discontinue federally funded projects in the Superfund site except in cases where EPA has issued a site closure letter deeming the property safe for its intended use. HUD also has directed the city to disclose additional properties that received HUD assistance in the USS Lead Superfund site since 2010.
HUD directed city environmental review staff take training courses and update its environmental review policies and procedures.
City: New construction was before Copeland administration
The East Chicago Redevelopment Department routinely has rehabbed properties of low-income families through its federally funded Owner-Occupied Residential Repair Program, and some of the work included lead-based paint and/or soil removal in years past, according to city records and data provided to The Times through records requests.
From 2008 to 2017, the city spent nearly $232,000 in HUD grant money to rehab 14 low-income properties in the Superfund site, records show. Of that amount, $129,736 was spent on lead-hazard abatement or stabilization. Just over 90 homes have been rehabbed citywide since 2008.
EPA told the city the soil was clean at properties in the 400 block of Vernon and the 5000 block of Alexander, according to a 2010 EPA letter provided to The Times by the city of East Chicago.
New housing was constructed on those properties. Building permits were issued in 2008, before the Superfund site was listed by EPA, the city said. One home in the 4700 block of Alexander was constructed in 2008, according to Lake County assessor records. Another home in the 4800 block of Kennedy was constructed in 2010.
"These projects occurred prior to Anthony Copeland becoming mayor and the present Development Department director," the city said.
Debbie Chizewer, an attorney at Northwestern University Pritzker Law School's Environmental Law Clinic, said both local and federal officials have obligations to protect residents.
“It’s not just the city’s obligation or HUD’s obligations to supervise these environmental reviews,” Chizewer said. “It’s also EPA’s obligation on site to communicate with the city and property owners about known exposures and allowable activities.”
The city previously criticized EPA for past failure to share soil data, and that, if the city had known, it would have taken swift action sooner. However, the inspection of East Chicago's environmental assessments of Superfund properties shows the city disregarded federal regulations by failing to assess or mitigate hazards, according to the HUD review, even in instances when contamination had been identified.
Sherry Hunter, an outspoken critic of the city administration, former longtime Superfund resident and member of resident activist group Calumet Lives Matter, said the city should be held liable.
"Those are hazards, and they've been sitting on this all this time, the dangers of the lead, the harms that it would do. And they never told anyone. There's a reason they haven’t been developing in Calumet," Hunter said.
HUD oversaw questionable reviews of West Calumet
Questions still remain as to why the West Calumet Housing Complex property was not cleared of hazards before construction in the early 1970s, but instead built on the footprint of a former lead smelter.
HUD's National Environmental Policy Act, which requires all properties under HUD programs to be free of hazardous materials, went into effect in 1969. A year later, the East Chicago Housing Authority, HUD and East Chicago Development Corp. signed a contract for the West Calumet project.
HUD officials previously have said it does not dictate where communities build housing and thus could not independently say why the West Calumet site was not cleared of hazards prior to construction.
HUD also has said the complex was built in 1973 — after the signing of NEPA, but prior to HUD guidance on consideration of site contamination and housing development and implementing regulations.
One environmental clearance officer signed off on a 2003 review. A handwritten note stated the project was in compliance with environmental policies, because there was “no industry visible from site … no landfills or waste sites visible from property.”
Two reviews — one for fiscal year 2004 and another for 2005-2009 — stated West Calumet is “not near or more than 3,000 ft of a chemical or hazard (waste) site.”
Missing from those environmental reviews is any mention of the nearby shuttered USS Lead facility, which had been the subject of EPA study since 1985, or the lead smelter on which the complex was built. Extensive sampling and soil removal have been ongoing since 2003.
Northwestern's Chizewer said last week the conclusions made in those environmental reviews “were obviously disconnected from reality.”
The West Calumet complex was built more than 40 years ago, when the dangers of lead and arsenic were not as well known, but since that time research on exposure in children has greatly advanced.