EPA works to address concerns as it begins excavation

EPA contractors excavate contaminated soil in October at a home in East Calumet, which is part of the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago.

EAST CHICAGO — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has canceled Saturday's scheduled open house for residents to discuss the USS Lead Superfund site cleanup, citing the potential lapse in federal funding beginning at midnight Saturday.

Several news outlets reported a vote on funding for the federal government was expected late Friday.

The news came just one day after the city’s mayor, Anthony Copeland, announced the EPA had informed him that lead exceeded its standard for drinking water in 18 out of 45 homes it has tested.

EPA has tested water at 43 homes, not 45, a spokesman said Friday.

The testing was conducted in zones 2 and 3 of the USS Lead Superfund site in the Calumet neighborhood, the middle and eastern parts of the neighborhood, where high levels of lead and arsenic contaminants were found in the soil.

The agency has no plans to expand the testing program elsewhere in the Superfund site or the rest of the city, EPA spokesman Peter Cassell said Friday.

City Attorney Carla Morgan said the city does not have adequate funding to carry out further testing nor does it have the ability to duplicate the EPA’s methods at this time. According to the city, this type of “sequential testing” costs about $5,000 per household but The Times could not independently verify the costs. 

Copeland told residents Friday he sent letters to Gov. Mike Pence and governor-elect Eric Holcomb seeking an emergency declaration because of the lead crisis in the city's Calumet neighborhood.

Members of a community strategy group who met with Copeland on Friday said they hope the request helps bring more resources into the city as residents deal with the fallout from living on land contaminated with lead, arsenic and other chemicals left behind by decades of industrial activity.

"We are just really excited that the people have won today. The people have won today," said the Rev. Cheryl Rivera, a member of the group and director of the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations. 

A Pence spokeswoman on Friday said the governor's office has received the letter and is reviewing the request, without elaborating on a timeline. 

The EPA test results "reaffirms the need” for the entire site's drinking water to be tested as community groups have been requesting, said Debbie Chizewer, one of the attorneys at Northwestern University Pritzker Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic working on behalf of residents. "Now it's even more pressing."

'Parallel with Flint now'

Preliminary EPA data show elevated lead levels in the water supply for a number of homes prior to the EPA's excavation work. The testing was initially carried out to see if the EPA’s construction work would disturb the service lines that carry water from the mains in the street to the yards in the homes.

When lead, or galvanized iron, service lines are disturbed, small particles of lead can break off and get into the drinking water, according to the city.

Like many older cities across the nation, East Chicago has a large percentage of service lines made of lead. It is likely that many homes in East Chicago have service lines that are made of, or contain, lead. Lead plumbing components in some homes could also cause increased lead levels, according to the city.   

Now, The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is working with the city to adjust corrosion control levels. The treatment reduces lead leaching by forming a protective coating on the interior of the pipes, according to the city.

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Thomas Frank, a member of the Duneland Environmental Justice Alliance and a board member for the Southeast Environmental Justice Task Force, said Friday the city and EPA began testing water because of residents' demands.

Frank said residents want the program extended throughout the city.

Ray Mosley, a member of the strategy group, said he felt progress is being made. He said he hoped the same resources Flint, Michigan, has received will now be made available to East Chicago.

"The lead has been found in the water," he said. "Our site is parallel with Flint now."

However, Kaplan said this week the results are preliminary and do not indicate if there is a widespread problem. He advised concerned residents to consider using a water filter like the ones distributed by the state of Michigan earlier this year in Flint. 

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Filters certified to remove lead or ones labeled National Sanitation Foundation-53 certified filters are considered highly effective at removing high concentrations of lead, according to the EPA.

Soil sampling in zone 2 will continue into winter as weather permits, according to an EPA fact sheet, but cleanup efforts have been suspended for the winter in zones 2 and 3. The agency excavated dirt at 55 properties, including 17 in zone 2 and 38 in zone 3 this year. 

To date, EPA has sampled 476 of the 596 properties in zone 2. The agency received access agreements to sample 418 of the 468 properties on zone 3.

EPA tested indoor dust in many households in the Superfund site, and is offering indoor cleaning to residents in homes where dust tested above screening levels, according to a fact sheet.

Continued dialogue

Sheilah Garland, a member of the strategy group, said Friday the mayor also invited residents to meet weekly to discuss the lead crisis.

She said the group was happy the mayor made a request for an emergency declaration, "so there will be greater funding to address the ongoing crisis that just seems to continue to unfold," Garland said.

Maritza Lopez, of East Calumet, said the meeting with Copeland and his staff was productive and residents will continue seeking support.

"We've got to stay behind this and continue with the other agencies as well. It's our livelihood," she said.

Akeesha Daniels, of West Calumet, extended the invitation to meet weekly with city officials to residents of all three cleanup zones in the Calumet neighborhood and of the Nicosia Senior Building, a North Side public housing facility where some residents also have tested positive for lead.

Rivera said the group also asked to review the budget for the East Chicago Housing Authority, which is continuing its efforts to relocate more than 1,000 residents. The city plans to demolish the complex, which sits in the footprint of the former Anaconda lead smelter. USS Lead, a second smelter, operated just south of the complex.

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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.