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Public hearing at West Calumet Housing Complex

An EPA sign warning residents not to play in the dirt or around the mulch is seen in August at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago. The city this 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.

EAST CHICAGO — City officials this week released documents showing lead in the soil at nearly every property in the West Calumet Housing Complex exceeds the EPA’s threshold for emergency cleanup, and accusing the federal agency of being slow to act since first sampling the area in 2009.

The city is working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to relocate about 1,000 residents — including 680 children — and possibly demolish the decades-old public housing complex, officials said.

Two lead smelter operations, Anaconda Lead Products and International Lead Refining Co., once operated on the site of the public housing complex and Carrie Gosch Elementary School, according to EPA documents. High levels of the carcinogen arsenic also have been found in the soil and generally correlate with lead levels, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

It is unclear if any environmental remediation was done following the demolition of the Anaconda facility sometime after 1959 and the start of construction of the West Calumet Complex in the early 1960s.

The complex and school occupy about 50 acres of a 400-acre area listed on the U.S. EPA Superfund National Priorities List in April 2009.* The Superfund site is named after USS Lead, which operated on land south of the West Calumet complex.

The EPA in 2012 selected a remediation plan, but has not yet started to remove contaminated soil. The agency plans to meet with residents before beginning excavation, a spokeswoman said last week.

Children, especially those younger than 6, are particularly at risk when exposed to lead. Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can cause irreversible behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems, and anemia, according to the EPA.(tncms-asset)c339f062-5b6c-11e6-89fb-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)

Shocking soil test results

The level of contamination appears to be more extensive than the EPA estimated, according to documents filed as part of the Superfund site’s administrative record.

The city on May 24 received results from soil samples the EPA began taking in November and December 2014 in the West Calumet complex, according to the city timeline.

“Soil testing data reveals lead levels in the soil up to 91,100 mg/kg, almost 76 times the regulatory time-critical removal action level of 1,200 mg/kg and almost 228 times the maximum lead level of 400 mg/kg, which is considered safe for residential use,” the timeline says.

The 91,100 mg/kg result was found at a depth of 18 to 24 inches at a home in the 5000 block of Aster Street, according to a letter provided to The Times. The lead concentration at a depth of zero to 6 inches was 6,900 mg/kg at the same property.

A graph provided by the city shows lead levels at nearly every property exceeded the 1,200 mg/kg standard. Of the 109 properties at the complex, four did not show test results, five previously were cleaned up, two had lead levels between 400 mg/kg and 1,200 mg/kg, and the rest were above 1,200 mg/kg.

In a statement Friday, EPA Region 5 Acting Administrator Robert Kaplan said the agency understands the seriousness of the high lead levels found at the West Calumet Complex and has expedited its efforts to reduce residents’ exposure to lead-contaminated soils.

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Starting next week, EPA will offer deep-cleaning services inside homes to remove any lead or arsenic contamination, he said. The agency will prioritize which homes will be cleaned first based on risk factors and “arrange and pay for hotel stays” during the estimated three to five days the deep cleanings will take, he said.

More information was to be posted Friday at the project website, www.epa.gov/in/west-calumet-housing-complex-east-chicago.

City: EPA slow to respond

According to the city, EPA first sampled soils at the Superfund site in 2003, but did not start sampling soil at West Calumet until September 2009. Nine samples were taken at the complex, and all of them exceeded the 400 mg/kg limit, the city said.

Mayor Anthony Copeland took office in October 2010 and in spring 2011 began meeting with EPA Region 5 staff regarding the USS Lead Superfund site, the city said.

EPA in fall 2011 cleaned up five properties at West Calumet, after lead concentrations of more than 5,990 mg/kg were found, but did not investigate whether the contamination extended beyond the nine properties sampled in 2009, according to the city.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in January 2011 issued a report, which concluded, “ATSDR concludes that breathing the air, drinking tap water or playing in soil around the USS Lead Site is not expected to harm people’s health, as indicated by the declining blood lead levels in small children.” The ATSDR is required by law to conduct a public health assessment at all sites on the EPA National Priorities List.

The city said the ATSDR report cited a “lack of environmental data” but failed to cite blood-lead level testing conducted by Indiana’s Childhood Poisoning Lead Elimination Plan and the East Chicago Health Department from 1991 to 2011.

Despite objections from the city and Copeland, the EPA in 2012 selected its proposed remediation plan to excavate up to 2 feet of soil, put down barriers to cover any remaining contamination and bring in clean soil at an estimated cost of $28.9 million. The city was pushing for an alternative that called for excavation down to native sand, which is generally not contaminated, at a cost of $43.8 million.

EPA noted in a 2012 Record of Decision that the highest lead and arsenic concentrations were found in the public housing complex and appeared to be related to operations at the Anaconda facility that once stood there.

EPA began sampling the soil at West Calumet and Carrie Gosch Elementary in November 2014 and received completed results in April 2015, according to its website. The city said it made repeated requests for the results during meetings at EPA offices in Chicago, but did not receive results until May 24 this year.

The city on June 6, in a meeting with EPA and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials, requested that residents immediately be relocated, before the EPA begins excavation, according to the city’s timeline. In July, the city sent a letter to EPA requesting, in part, that the agency “develop a more comprehensive remedial plan” in light of the 2014-2015 findings.

It appears change still may be possible. According to a statement at the Superfund website, the EPA is currently negotiating a potential revision to a 2014 settlement with Atlantic Richfield and DuPont in which the two companies — successors to the businesses responsible for the contamination — would conduct the remediation work instead of the EPA.

* Editor's note: This story has been updated from a previous version.

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