Public hearing at West Calumet Housing Complex

The West Calumet Housing Complex is shown on a recent day in East Chicago. Excavation of lead- and arsenic-laced soil will not continue as long as residents are relocating, the EPA and the city said Friday.

EAST CHICAGO — EPA and city officials said Friday the federal agency will not excavate any soil in the lead- and arsenic-contaminated West Calumet Housing Complex as the city housing authority and HUD work to relocate residents.

Brad Benning, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 on-scene coordinator, said a previous plan for remediation was designed to make residents' yards safe. If all of the residents relocate in four to six months and the city later demolishes the complex, a different plan could be renegotiated depending on the city's long-term plans for the area, he said.

East Chicago officials were concerned excavation activity planned under a 2014 consent decree would stir up contaminated dust and increase health risks for residents, he said.

City Attorney Carla Morgan said the city has not received written notice from the EPA, but was told verbally the agency will not be digging in the area. Officials are hoping residents can be relocated using U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development vouchers before any excavation in the complex begins, she said.

The EPA selected a plan in 2012 and reached an agreement in fall 2014 with Atlantic Richfield and DuPont for a $26 million cleanup in part of the USS Lead Superfund site. The Calumet neighborhood, which encompasses the residential area to the north and northeast of the former USS Lead facility at 5300 Kennedy Ave., has been dubbed operating unit 1 and includes three zones. The former USS Lead facility is part of a second operating unit.

Anaconda Lead Products and International Lead Refining Co., two additional smelter facilities, operated at the site now occupied by the housing complex, according to EPA records. It is unclear if any remediation was done before the construction of the housing complex in the early 1970s.

Zone 1 — which covers the public housing complex and Carrie Gosch Elementary School — is covered under the consent decree. The other zone covered under the agreement is Zone 3, which is bounded by the Elgin & Joliet Railway Line to the west, Parrish Avenue to the east, East Chicago Avenue to the north and 149th Place to the south.

Zone 2, which is not covered under the decree, is bounded by East Chicago Avenue to the north, 151st Street to the south, McCook Avenue to the west, and the Elgin & Joliet and Eastern Parkway to the east. It also includes a segment just north of Gosch Elementary and west of McCook.

Vouchers, deep cleaning, potential renegotiation 

Morgan, the city attorney, said she was told by HUD and East Chicago Housing Authority officials that HUD would begin making relocation vouchers available starting Thursday to residents in batches of 50. The vouchers will be distributed based on a priority system developed in partnership with EPA, she said. Families with the most vulnerable populations, including pregnant women and young children, would be the first to receive vouchers. Officials also will be considering whether anyone in the households have tested positive for lead.

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said Friday the federal agency released just over $1.9 million to the local housing authority to relocate residents. 

NIPSCO has agreed to waive deposit fees and any past due balances for West Calumet residents who relocate, spokesman Rick Calinski said.

Dust samples taken from inside 54 units at West Calumet as of Friday showed slightly more than half exceeded the EPA's standard of 316 parts per million, according to Benning, of the EPA.

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EPA has placed mulch to control the spread of contaminated soil outdoors. Ambient air monitors to track the level of lead in airborne dust have not yet arrived on-site, Benning said.

EPA also began deep-cleaning units last week on a priority-based schedule. Six or seven units had been completed as of Friday, Benning added, and about 20 more were scheduled.

There are more than 340 units at West Calumet and about 1,000 residents, approximately 680 of whom are children. EPA said every family eventually will have an opportunity to have their units cleaned. Those who choose to move before EPA can clean their units may request that their furniture be cleaned, Benning said.

Any renegotiation of the consent decree likely would focus solely on Zone 1, said Benning, who oversees on-site cleanup efforts. He did not have information about soil testing results in Zone 3. No properties in Zone 3 had been identified for excavation as of Friday, he said.

Renegotiation of the cleanup plan for Zone 1 likely would involve drafting a new plan, working with the city and initiating another public comment process. The city had raised concerns about soil being left under paved areas, but that likely won't be an issue if West Calumet is demolished, Benning said.

Slow to act

EPA began testing the soil at all properties in Zone 1 in late 2014 and released the results to the city May 24. The results showed the soil at nearly every property in West Calumet exceeded the EPA's 1,200 ppm threshold for emergency cleanup. At one property, the lead concentration was found to be more than 91,000 ppm.

A 2012 EPA Record of Decision said the maximum lead concentration found during previous, limited tests of residential areas was 27,100 ppm. The document also said EPA found the highest levels of lead and arsenic at the housing complex, and that the contamination appeared to be related to operations at the Anaconda Copper Co.

The highest arsenic level found before 2012 was 567 ppm, according to the Record of Decision. Arsenic levels of more than 26.4 ppm in residential areas trigger an EPA cleanup.

The city has accused the EPA for being slow to act. In a timeline released in response to public records requests, the city said it made repeated requests for results from soil testing in 2014-15 before receiving them in May of this year.

Region 5 acting Regional Administrator Robert Kaplan said he sent a letter to the city apologizing for the delay in releasing results.

Meanwhile, at least three attorneys have either filed suit or put the city on notice their clients intend to sue based, in part, on claims the East Chicago Housing Authority failed to notify residents of the lead and arsenic in the soil.

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