Public hearing at West Calumet Housing Complex

An EPA sign warning residents not to play in the dirt or around the mulch is seen Wednesday at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago. The city last week released data showing the concentration of lead in the soil ranged from just less than 400 mg/kg — the level the EPA considers safe for residential use — to 91,100 mg/kg.

A Merrillville-based attorney said Tuesday he put East Chicago, its housing authority and its health department on notice that he intends to file a lawsuit on behalf of four children and their mother, who once lived at a public housing complex where the soil is highly contaminated with lead and arsenic.

State law requires a tort claim notice be filed before suing a government agency.

Barry Rooth, of the Merrillville firm, Theodoros & Rooth P.C., held a meeting with his client, Paris Smith, of Hammond, who said she lived at the West Calumet Housing Complex from November 2013 to November or December 2015 and received no information from the city, the housing authority or the health department about lead contamination at the site or its associated risks.

East Chicago City Attorney Carla Morgan said, “From the moment the city and the mayor became aware of the lead levels, we have been working night and day to protect the residents’ safety.”

Smith, who became pregnant during her time at the complex, said housing authority employees did not mention the lead contamination found in the soil by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during sampling in 2009 and 2010.

When she signed her lease, housing authority employees did not provide her with any written materials regarding the contamination, she said.

Rooth said he thinks case law requires the city, which owns the property where the complex sits, to disclose hazardous and dangerous conditions.

City officials this week released documents showing that lead in the soil at nearly every property in the West Calumet Housing Complex exceeds the EPA’s threshold for emergency cleanup. The city also accused the federal agency of being slow to act.

Smith has four children, ages 3 months to 8 years old. She’s still waiting on blood-lead level test results, but an employee at her 3-year-old son’s preschool recommended he receive a mental evaluation because he’s hyperactive, she said.

“All kids are hyperactive, but his hyperactiveness is a little more extreme,” she said.

She doesn't have any particular health concerns about her other children, but their tests results also are pending, she said.

Children, especially those younger than 6, are particularly at risk when exposed to lead, according to the EPA.

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East Chicago Housing Authority attorney Jewell Harris Jr. on Tuesday declined to comment because he had not yet seen the tort claim.

The West Calumet Housing Complex and Carrie Gosch Elementary School sit on about 50 acres of the roughly 400-acre USS Lead Superfund site. Testing of soil in the area began decades ago. The Superfund site is named after USS Lead, which operated on land south of the West Calumet complex.

The School City of East Chicago said Monday it will close Carrie Gosch this year and send students to another school.

Two lead smelter operations also once operated on the site of the public housing complex and the school, according to EPA documents.

East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland notified residents in a letter last month that it would be in their best interests to relocate. The housing authority at an Aug. 3 hearing outlined plans to secure U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development vouchers for residents. The vouchers were requested as part of a proposal to demolish the complex.

East Chicago officials also on Aug. 3 released a timeline in response to public records requests that said EPA first sampled soil at nine properties within the complex in 2009 and 2010. EPA sought funding for an emergency removal action in 2011 and remediated five of those properties.

EPA again began sampling soil in November 2014 without giving notice to East Chicago, and the federal agency released results to the city in May after city officials made repeated requests during meetings at the EPA’s offices in Chicago, according to the city's timeline.

Rooth said sampling results from 2009 and 2010 should have been enough for the city to relocate West Calumet residents.

EPA documents say the agency has posted notices at the West Calumet community center over the years warning of the dangers of lead. Smith said she did not notice any warnings about the contamination posted by the EPA or other agencies at public buildings within the complex.

“It warrants the time and effort of going house to house and telling them there is a problem or, better yet, shutting it down," Rooth said. "Don’t let them live there.”

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