EAST CHICAGO — Local officials are eyeing March 12 to begin tearing down one of the most contaminated public housing sites in the country.
The West Calumet Housing Complex — built in the early 1970s in the footprint of a former lead smelter — has sat vacant for the last eight months following the relocation of more than 1,000 people due to dangerous levels of lead and arsenic in the soil.
The site's severe contamination has neighboring homeowners anxious about health effects and the spread of airborne toxins, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development argues the EPA-reviewed demolition plan will adequately protect the health and safety of residents.
In September, HUD awarded the local housing authority $4 million under the condition the money be spent within the year.
"We want to do this as quickly as possible," East Chicago Housing Authority Executive Director Tia Cauley said Friday night at a public hearing at Riley Park.
The local housing authority can't afford to maintain the vacant site at 4920 Larkspur Drive, she said. Last year, the housing authority's annual insurance costs skyrocketed from $40,000 to $400,000, she said.
Public health and safety are also serious concerns, Cauley said.
ECHA spent $2 million from the state to board up homes and install a barbed-wire fence around the perimeter, but people still trespass, she said.
John Blosky, with Amereco Engineering, the company hired to craft a demolition plan and oversee contractors, said he is reviewing 11 bids received by companies. The job will be awarded in the coming weeks, he added.
The months-long project should wrap up by the "second or third week" of August, Blosky said.
The East Chicago Housing Authority hosted a public hearing Friday night detailing the project's timeline, the demolition process and safety measures in place.
Friday's public hearing was sparsely attended, possibly due to the winter storm that dropped close to a foot of snow throughout much of the Region.
After a short presentation by Amereco, two East Chicago residents arrived. Blosky and colleague Zach Heine fielded questions from them — mainly on the topic of safety.
"I have asthma. As you're demolishing the buildings, and the dust is flying in the air and monitors go off, and I happen to be driving through the community, what's going to tell me to roll my windows up and go home?" Lori Locklear asked.
Residents had previously requested specific procedures be put in writing about how and when to notify the community in the event of emergencies.
However, Blosky said Friday the likelihood of an event that warrants a communitywide alert is almost nonexistent, thanks to extensive air monitoring and use of water to prevent the spread of airborne contaminants.
NIPSCO natural gas at the site will be terminated during demolition, he said.
When residents took up issue with ECHA's earlier plan to remove all utilities, further disturbing the soil, ECHA agreed to a more scaled-back approach that includes the tear-down of all residential structures, nondwelling structures, parking lots, sidewalks and streets.
As homes are demolished, tarped trucks will ship debris and waste to a pre-approved landfill, Blosky said. EPA and Amereco will have several personnel on site during the demolition.
When demolition is complete, EPA will be responsible for crafting a cleanup plan.
Federal and state environmental agencies have long investigated the area's contaminants, but the EPA did not designate the complex and adjacent neighborhoods as a hazardous Superfund site until 2009.
The public housing site's future is unknown.