East Chicago residents are concerned about a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal to remove hundreds of homes from a list tracking the nation’s most contaminated sites.
The EPA’s Region 5, which oversees Indiana and five other states, filed a Notice of Intent to Delete 671 properties from the agency’s National Priorities List after both the EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management said the agency fulfilled its commitment to remove contaminated soil from that portion of the USS Lead Superfund site.
The properties are located in a part of the city that formerly housed several industrial facilities, including the U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery Inc. facility. That site and surrounding areas were found to be contaminated with lead and arsenic and were designated a Superfund site in 2009.
About a decade later, the EPA said the homes in the proposal are free of contamination and are cleared for residential use, but residents are concerned that delisting the properties may remove pressure on the EPA to address some issues that could cause further health problems.
Mark Templeton, director of the Abrams Law Clinic at the University of Chicago, represents residents living on and near the USS Lead site. He said progress has been made at the sites, but the EPA is moving forward on delisting while many health concerns remain.
“Generally, the goal of the Superfund program is to remediate these sites, get them cleaned up and have them move back into productive and safe use. One of the things that the residents that we work with are concerned about is some of these lingering issues at the site. Some of the same homes that would be delisted appear to be some of the ones that have concerns about groundwater contamination,” said Templeton. “I think that there is a concern that delisting could remove some of the pressure on the EPA to work on the groundwater issues.”
The EPA said lead-contaminated soil has been removed from 95% of the 1,078 properties on the Superfund site. The agency said there is no contamination “at-depth,” the 24-inches of soil below ground mandated by several clean-up agreements.
The agency said it would investigate possible groundwater contamination in the area, but that no further action was necessary. The EPA said the properties “pose no unacceptable risk to human health and the environment.”
“EPA is keeping its promise to the people of East Chicago to remove lead from their homes and to improve the public health in their hometown by picking up the pact of this Superfund cleanup,” EPA Region 5 administrator Kurt Thiede said in a press release. “And we will keep up that momentum in East Chicago until we finish the job at all the remaining properties.”
The EPA said delisting the properties would allow the city to redevelop vacant lots, like the city has planned for other parts of the Superfund site.
East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland told the EPA that Industrial Development Advantage LLC signed a letter of intent to purchase the 49-acre site that was formerly the West Calumet Housing Complex and build a “logistics and distribution campus and warehousing complex.”
The East Chicago City Council in May passed an ordinance to rezone the site from residential to light industrial use, 8 to 1. The only dissenting vote was cast by council president Robert Garcia.
“I wanted to know what’s the oversight of EPA with this company cleaning this site. I didn’t get communication from the EPA,” Garcia said during the meeting. “I just wanted it to be known that I cannot vote for this because I have to hear from the EPA how the EPA’s going to regulate this company to clean that land.”
Garcia’s concern about cleanup at the USS Lead site is shared by former West Calumet Housing Complex residents and other East Chicago residents.
“It is true EPA remediated a number of yards where they took off a couple of feet of the topsoil and replaced it with clean fill. That is going to make it better, generally speaking, but there are outstanding issues,” Templeton said. “Some of the same homes that would be delisted appear to be some of the ones that have concerns about groundwater contamination.”
Templeton said that despite assurances, residents are concerned that contamination in groundwater at the site could seep into exposed basements, foundations or even dirt. That contaminated dirt could then be tracked into other areas previously free of contamination.
Beyond contamination that could already be at the sites, Templeton said members of the East Chicago Community Advisory Group are concerned redevelopment to industrial standards instead of residential brings a new array of health risks.
“One of the challenges is adding an industrial or light industry kind of facility in a neighborhood that has experienced contamination already, because the population has been burdened with these environmental harms and a distribution center also brings its own challenges in terms of how many diesel trucks are going to be coming in and out of that facility every day,” Templeton said.
Distribution centers in California were found to drastically reduce air quality in surrounding neighborhoods. Recent studies have found that short-term exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of premature death, and long-term exposure has been linked to higher COVID-19 death rates.
Studies have also found that people of color and low-income communities experience more pollution.
University of Washington researchers found that nonwhites experienced 37% more exposure to nitrogen oxide pollution than their white non-Hispanic counterparts.
The Shriver Center on Poverty Law found that 70% of hazardous waste sites officially listed on the National Priorities List are located within one mile of federally assisted housing.
“This means that many black and brown communities are disproportionately impacted by exposure to hazardous contamination,” said Debbie Chizewer, managing attorney at Earthjustice and Board Chair of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.
The EPA will accept public comments on the proposal until August 7.