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EPA to clean up last of soil at USS Lead in East Chicago. Will residents nearby be safe?

A sign outside where the West Calumet Housing Complex once stood that reads "Rebuilding Calumet." Trees inside the site have been cut down to prepare the site for excavation.
Courtesy of Akeeshea Daniels
The West Calumet Housing Complex was demolished in 2018. A new sign has been posted on the wire fence surrounding the vacant land for Industrial Development Advantage, LLC. The company hopes to build a logistics and distribution warehouse there.

The federal government aims to finish cleaning up lead and arsenic contaminated soil in residential areas of the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago by summer of next year.

The company doing the work hopes to build a logistics and distribution warehouse where the West Calumet Housing Complex once stood. Residents worry Industrial Development Advantage, LLC could spread that pollution around the neighborhood and recontaminate yards.

IDA started digging up polluted soil earlier this month and aims to start hauling it away to a permitted landfill by the end of December. The company is supposed to keep dust under control and brush the soil off of truck tires before they leave — though it doesn’t have a washing station for tires.

IDA set up air monitors around the site and the Environmental Protection Agency said, so far, they haven’t shown cause for concern. But that data hasn’t been made available to residents yet — and the EPA has given few updates on the site since May.

The fact that this could be the last soil cleanup on the USS Lead site concerns East Chicago residents like Akeeshea Daniels. She's also the co-chair of the East Chicago Calumet Community Advisory Group (CAG).

Daniels worries about what this could mean for residents living nearby — including her grandmother in her 90s and seniors at the Lake County Rehabilitation Center just across the street.

“It’s sad because it’s like — are [the EPA] going to come back or is this just completely done? And what is our city doing to make sure that they'll come back and check it again?” she said.

The EPA said it doesn't intend to retest properties nearby once the work is done.

Daniels said residents also haven’t been told much about what IDA plans to do and what they plan to bring to the community.

“Are they willing to hire and train the people in the community that need jobs? Or is this just going to be something that sits dormant so that they couldn't build houses on,” she said.

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Daniels said some companies that have moved into the neighborhood have left the land vacant.

Because the land is being used for an industrial warehouse, it won’t be cleaned up to stricter, residential standards and people who were forced to move out of the housing complex — like Daniels — can’t move back there. The city had originally told residents the site of the West Calumet Public Housing Complex would become housing again after the cleanup was finished.

Daniels said many of the people who were raised in the Superfund site or moved to the area have suffered respiratory issues or cancer.

"We have a lot of people dying from different forms of cancer still to date. And they haven't brought in one specialist to see what is going on with the people in this area," she said.

We couldn’t reach IDA for comment. Though the EPA provided statements for context, the agency did not provide an interview.

Rebecca is our energy and environment reporter. Contact her at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

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Rebecca Thiele covers statewide environment and energy issues.