Makyla Nelson, 10, looks for a neighbor to play with but instead is turned away by an EPA contractor cleaning her friend's apartment at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago. It's been at least 20 years since environmental regulators knew the complex was built in the footprint of a long-demolished lead smelter, but residents only recently learned exactly what was in their soil and what a cleanup means for them. Staff photo by Jonathan Miano

Makyla Nelson, 10, looks for a neighbor to play with but instead is turned away by an EPA contractor cleaning her friend's apartment at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago. It's been at least 20 years since environmental regulators knew the complex was built in the footprint of a long-demolished lead smelter, but residents only recently learned exactly what was in their soil and what a cleanup means for them. Staff photo by Jonathan Miano

Nearly 20 years after an EPA project manager told state and federal health officials about a long-demolished lead smelter that once operated on the site of a public housing complex and elementary school in East Chicago, residents are just learning the full extent and magnitude of the contamination in the land some of them have lived on for generations.

Contamination leaked or spilled on the ground by that factory, or spewed into the air by several other lead- and metal-processing plants and other heavy industries that surround the neighborhood, potentially has affected tens of thousands of people.

Over the years, officials at every level of government have shown concern about the health risks posed by living on land saturated with lead and arsenic. But why it took so long for anyone to act with any sustained sense of urgency depends on who you ask.

Several federal and state agencies discussed the ghost factory during a May 1997 visit to East Chicago's West Calumet, Calumet and East Calumet areas. The visit appears to be the first documented mention of the factory in the EPA's extensive administrative record for the site.

At the time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had not yet included the predominantly African-American Calumet neighborhood in a cleanup effort focused on another lead smelter, USS Lead.

USS Lead, which went dormant in 1985, sat south of the West Calumet Housing Complex and Carrie Gosch Elementary School.

The 1997 conversation between EPA and state and federal health officials was documented in a 1998 exposure investigation report prepared by the State Department of Health under an agreement with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR.

"An elementary school that services both communities (West Calumet and Calumet) is undergoing construction," the report said. "Per the EPA project manager, this is the site of an old lead smelter (Anaconda)."

"The Calumet community, per the EPA project manager, is built on an old metal processing plant (Eagle Pitcher)."

An IDEM spokeswoman said Friday that Anaconda and Eagle Picher are one and the same.

The factory's main buildings stood toward the south end of present-day West Calumet Housing Complex, and some of the highest lead concentrations have now been found in an area where a lead refinery was located, according to a Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Eagle Picher published in 2012 by USA Today, and data provided in July by residents and EPA. Direct deposits from factory operations are likely to result in greater concentrations of contaminates in the soil, EPA has said.

After the 1997 site visit, East Chicago, state and federal health officials collaborated to offer blood lead-level tests to residents of the area, and what the tests found was alarming.

A total of 95 residents were tested in July 1997 — 30 of them children age 6 or younger — and 30 percent of those children had blood lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or more, records show. That was the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s level of concern at the time; the CDC changed that standard in 2012 to 5 micrograms per deciliter. The lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, has spurred calls for even further reductions.

The 1998 ATSDR report recommended, in part, “Remediate the area of lead contamination at the Anaconda site, including the vicinity of the elementary school, to prevent further exposure.”

After learning May 24 this year of the full extent and magnitude of the contamination in the first of three cleanup zones, the city in July advised 1,000 West Calumet Housing Complex residents — including 680 children — to relocate. Residents — many of whom own homes in the other two cleanup zones — are still awaiting testing results.

Preliminary results from a new round of blood sampling are again a cause for concern.

A total of 672 children and adults have been tested so far, and final results show 10 children age 8 and younger have blood lead levels between 5 and 10 micrograms per deciliter, according to the Indiana State Department of Health. A number of others preliminarily tested above the 5 micrograms per deciliter level of concern, department officials said last month. The city has said hundreds of children may be affected and some preliminary results have been as high as 33 micrograms per deciliter.

Pregnant women and 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 and, in extreme cases, coma or death, experts say.

1906 to 1996: A history of lead

The Delamar Copper Refinery Co. began construction around 1906 on the factory that later would come to be known as USS Lead; it ceased operations in 1985.

To the southwest and downwind of the Calumet neighborhood, cleanup is ongoing at a DuPont facility that manufactured lead arsenate insecticide from 1910 to 1949, records show. IDEM sampled soil at a third factory site, U.S. Reduction Co., just north of the neighborhood, as part of the listing process for the USS Lead site, IDEM records show.

Atlantic-Richfield, a successor to Anaconda Lead, and DuPont reached a $26 million settlement in 2014 with the United States and Indiana to clean up the western and eastern parts of the neighborhood. It has not yet been determined who will pay for cleanup in the middle part of the neighborhood, say spokesmen with the Department of Justice and Indiana attorney general's office.

Aerial photographs show the Anaconda buildings still were standing as late as 1959, the same year the original Carrie Gosch Elementary School was built and dedicated, records show. A new Carrie Gosch would be rebuilt in the late 1990s.

In 1970, the city received a $313.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build the West Calumet Housing Complex, according to a recent housing discrimination complaint filed by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. 

East Chicago built the public housing complex in the footprint of the Anaconda factory between 1970 and 1973, and it's believed no remediation was done, records show.

USS Lead first entered into the EPA's RCRA program in 1980. The federal agency sampled soil in 1985, the same year USS Lead ceased operations. Samples taken in the area of the West Calumet Housing Complex ranged from 100 parts per million in the park south of Gosch Elementary, to 160 ppm at the southwest corner of a park near Magnolia and Aster Streets, records show. EPA's residential cleanup standard is 400 ppm.

EPA first proposed the USS Lead site for the Superfund National Priorities List in 1992, but the consideration was put on hold when EPA pursued cleanup under its RCRA program, which works with companies that can pay for cleanup. USS Lead began a cleanup in 1993.

1997 to 2013: Health concerns raised

The 1997 site visit that led ATSDR to recommend remediation of the Anaconda site and in the vicinity of Gosch Elementary was done at the request of EPA, records show.

Two August 1997 Indiana Department of Environmental Management memos, which were included in the EPA’s administrative record, show several soil samples were taken on the Gosch Elementary property, including two with lead levels above the EPA’s residential cleanup standard of 400 parts per million.

One of those memos noted the former Anaconda site was six blocks south of Gosch Elementary — at the south end of the West Calumet Housing Complex. Yet, the department tested just two samples at the north end of the complex, according to a hand-drawn map at the end of the memos.

Lead levels in those samples were below 400 parts per million, EPA's standard for residential cleanup. One memo said, “No further assessment is planned for the West Calumet Housing Complex.”

IDEM said Friday it sampled soil in 1997 near Gosch Elementary and at the north end of the housing complex at EPA's request.

"Taking samples at the south end of the complex would have been outside the scope of EPA's request to IDEM," IDEM spokeswoman Courtney Arango said.

The new Gosch Elementary, which had been under construction next to the old school building, was dedicated in 1999.

USS Lead concluded its cleanup in 2002, when it finished confining hazardous materials on-site, records show.

EPA said studies by the State Department of Health and ATSDR in the 1990s "indicated additional contamination and exposure concerns."

In 2008, 10 years after the ATSDR exposure investigation was released, EPA repurposed the site to the Superfund National Priorities List to include the residential areas, EPA said. The 79-acre USS Lead property and approximately 320-acre Calumet neighborhood were listed as one site in April 2009.

According to the city, it wasn't until 2009 that EPA conducted further soil testing in the West Calumet Housing Complex.

During that round of sampling, the agency tested just nine properties at the complex out of more than 100 in what had become known as zone 1, a cleanup area that includes the complex and Gosch Elementary.

EPA Acting Superfund Administrator Doug Ballotti said Friday that sampling done in 2003 and 2006 as part of the Superfund listing process, and in 2009-10 as part of a remedial investigation, was intended to take a broad view of all three zones in the residential cleanup area.

That area is composed of the West Calumet Complex and Carrie Gosch to the west; a small area just north of Gosch Elementary and the middle part of the neighborhood; and the East Calumet area.

"The goal of the testing is to investigate the extent of the contamination as best you can," Ballotti said.

EPA generally does not perform extensive testing in a specific area until it begins preparing a detailed plan for excavation, he said.

2014 to today: Cleanup underway

EPA finally conducted extensive testing of the West Calumet Complex in 2014-15, as part of design work for a plan for all three zones selected in 2012 to excavate down to 2 feet, cap any remaining contamination and replace soil.

East Chicago Mayor Copeland objected to that plan in 2012, calling instead for EPA to excavate down to native sand, which is generally not contaminated, and replace the soil. A city consultant in 2012 said plans for the area included demolition, new construction and a mixed use development and expressed concerns about costs to the city associated with work in the area, EPA records show.

Though the city built the West Calumet Housing Complex between 1970 and 1973 on what apparently was known to be the footprint of an old lead smelter, Copeland's administration has said it didn't learn of the full extent and magnitude of the contamination until May 24, 2016. That is when the city received zone 1 data for sampling done in 2014-15.

The city has said it repeatedly asked EPA for the data. EPA officials admitted to various reasons for the delay and promised to work more closely with the city. In two letters to EPA this summer, Copeland accused the agency of failing to fully investigate the Anaconda site sooner, failing to fully investigate health risks in recent years and more.

The mayor also accused EPA of failing to provide health officials with enough data for a 2011 report by ATSDR that resulted in the report being most favorable to the EPA-preferred cleanup plan.

The report concluded, in part: "Breathing the air, drinking tap water or playing in the 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."

Copeland laid out the city's concerns about the 2011 report in a July 14 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy: "The assessment erroneously assumes that all contamination in the residential areas was from airborne deposition of lead; it fails to mention the existence of the Anaconda Lead factory at all; it fails to factor in the pertinent information that the West Calumet Housing Complex was built directly on the footprint of the Anaconda facility; it failed to include the East Chicago Health Department in any discussion or knowledge sharing; and failed to consider data from blood-lead testing which the East Chicago Health Department collected between 1991 to 2011."

The report does not indicate ATSDR collaborated, as it did in 1997, with state and local officials to gather any current blood lead level data. An ATSDR spokeswoman said the agency is gathering information to determine if it needs to re-evaluate past health assessments for the site.

Copeland said this week the city's talks with EPA grew more productive after East Chicago hired an environmental attorney. He said he needed "people much smarter than myself" to look at and decipher the available information.

After receiving the EPA data in May, the city immediately began asking to relocate residents from the West Calumet Complex and demanded EPA suspend plans to excavate soil in the area out of fear airborne particles would put residents at further risk, records show.

Another letter the mayor sent to EPA in June said the complex is "at the end of its useful life" and "utilities are collapsing and require the city to perform dig-out repairs below the 24-inch barrier many times per year."

The city submitted an application in July to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to demolish the complex.

"The city believes relocation and demolition are necessary to protect residents' health," City Attorney Carla Morgan said. "We don't feel people could ever safely live in this housing stock again unless all lead and arsenic, including under foundations, sidewalks, etc., is removed."

Now that EPA is re-evaluating its cleanup plan for zone 1, Copeland said he's not sure to what use the land ultimately will be put.

"All of the known upfront resources should go toward relieving fears and anxiety about relocation," he said. "I cannot look forward to how the ground is going to be kept up if I'm still worried about where the people are at."

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