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EAST CHICAGO — Eighteen months into EPA’s aggressive cleanup of contaminated yards in the USS Lead Superfund site, the federal agency is now saying costs have nearly quadrupled to $84.9 million.

However, the agency’s overall approach to remediation — excavation of lead- and arsenic-contaminated soil and off-site disposal — has not changed.

Previously, EPA had estimated it would cost $29.9 million for cleanup across all three zones, including $22.8 million for the Calumet and East Calumet neighborhoods, known as Zones 2 and 3 respectively.

The new $84.9 million estimate does not include costs for Zone 1 — the now-empty West Calumet Housing Complex and former Carrie Gosch Elementary School — nor indoor dust removal at select homes. EPA has put excavation work in Zone 1 on hold while it updates a feasibility study for the area.

At a public hearing Thursday night at the city’s Pastrick library branch, Sarah Rolfes, remedial project manager with EPA, said the previous lower estimate was based on a small sample of properties and assumptions about the size of properties and extent of contamination.

Citing more up-to-date engineering estimates and 2017 prevailing wages, EPA has determined the cost to excavate and replace soil has increased to $471 per cubic yard, from $115 in 2012, Rolfes said. EPA also ran into numerous underground utilities, so excavation has been most costly and time-consuming than anticipated, she added.

‘The assumption really hurt us’

Environmental activists and residents largely criticized EPA’s cleanup scope Thursday night after Region 5 staff explained new significant cost differences associated with the multi-year Superfund cleanup.

One homeowner, Maritza Lopez, argued the cleanup — selected by EPA back in 2012 with public input — is not protective enough, given what the public knows now. She said EPA is failing to eliminate all risks associated with indoor lead dust nor does it address groundwater seepage in families’ basements.

“(EPA's) assumption really hurt us because many of us are contaminated, our homes are contaminated inside with lead, arsenic ... so we have to be very careful with the plan that is chosen. Four times the (cost estimate) isn’t sufficient to safeguard all the residents,” Lopez said. “If there’s seepage coming into the homes, guess what? You’re going to have to come back and re-clean.”

'Still the correct remedy'

Even with this projected cost increase, EPA staff Thursday night said they believe the 2012 cleanup plan is “still the correct remedy” for Zones 2 and 3.

EPA limited indoor dust testing to homes where elevated lead levels were found in outside soil, so it is possible some homeowners still have elevated lead levels inside but won't receive indoor testing. Tim Fischer, section chief of remediation for EPA Region 5, said EPA did not consider lead dust in homes when crafting a cleanup plan in 2012 because the agency “doesn’t typically look for” that.

Once EPA discovered it was a problem in fall 2016, the agency "expeditiously" cleaned homes where contamination was found. At this time, EPA has not tested any home interiors if their yards tested below EPA action levels, however, Fischer said.

Earlier this year, an EPA attorney said nearly 290 properties have been remediated since summer 2016. Another 718 require remediation.

Calling EPA’s approach “piecemeal,” Larry Davis, a longtime environmental activist, said the agency isn't considering all contamination sources or the pending results of the site’s groundwater study. 

Audrey Young-Lane, 68, who grew up in Calumet but now lives in the city’s North Harbor section, told EPA there was “no sense in half doing something.”

“We all may not be here, but do we expect our kids to be here? Will we still have a city called East Chicago in 25 years? In 50 years? What will it look like? Will there be any people in this Superfund site, or will we all be gone? What is our goal? You can’t put a bandage on a gaping wound," Young-Lane said.

Residents recently lost a bid in federal court seeking a more formal role in EPA's cleanup negotiations with the companies being held financially responsible. 

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Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.