EAST CHICAGO — Residents in the city’s Calumet neighborhood have lived in the shadow of industrial development for decades.
Emissions billowing from smokestacks are a part of life many of them have come to accept. So when the federal Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday they had reached a proposed settlement with two companies for the $26 million cleanup of land in the neighborhood due to extensive arsenic and lead soil contamination, many were unaware of the situation but not at all surprised.
Lawrence Purnell was among a group of men enjoying the summer weather this week in a small wedge-shaped piece of parkland in the cleanup zone north of the former U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery, which has been identified as the main source of the contamination. The park is where the city hosts its Calumet Day celebration.
The men say they had not heard about the USS Lead Superfund designation and the cleanup being proposed, but the news was no shock.
“It’s basically an industrial park,” said a man in the group who identified himself only as Mr. Jefferson.
Jefferson, who said he has lived in East Chicago off and on for 56 years, described the neighborhood of small row homes mostly constructed between 1939 and 1959 and the industry that lines its eastern and southern borders. Jefferson said the neighborhood was built on jobs created by local industry.
“The area’s flooded with chemicals,” he said.
Jefferson said he has had friends and family members work at USS Lead while it was still in operation. Some still work at the industries that remain. The jobs industry represents, he said, are badly needed.
“It’s just a way of life,” Jefferson said.
USS Lead is a former lead smelter at 5300 Kennedy Ave., according to the EPA report on the Superfund site. The facility was constructed in the early 1900s by the Delamar Copper Refinery Co. to produce copper.
In 1920, the property was bought by U.S. Smelting, Refining and Mining, and later by USS Lead, which operated a primary lead smelter at the facility until about 1972. The facility was then converted to a secondary smelter. All operations at the site stopped in 1985.
Yards in the Calumet neighborhood are contaminated with lead and arsenic through industrial operations that took place from at least the early 1900s through 1985, the report said.
Under the proposed settlement reached between the two agencies and the state, Atlantic Richfield Co. and DuPont (E.I. DuPont De Nemours and Co.). will pay for an estimated $26 million cleanup that involves removing as much as 2 feet of soil from the yards of affected homes and public buildings including Carrie Gosch Elementary School, carting the soil away to a specially contained landfill and replacing the soil and affected landscaping.
Kim Bradley, the new principal at Carrie Gosch, said she was unaware of the Superfund designation. Bradley, who took the helm at the school three weeks ago, said she could not comment on the matter until she learns more.
The area was designated a Superfund cleanup site in 2008.
New resident Tommy Reed lives in one of the homes on McCook Avenue, in the cleanup site. Reed said he and his wife moved to the neighborhood from Indianapolis and were unaware of the situation.
Reed said they chose the neighborhood because it appears poised for change. The city has designated the area the Calumet Neighborhood Redevelopment Plan. Many abandoned homes bare signs they soon will be demolished as part of an ongoing effort to bolster the neighborhood and attract new residential and commercial development.
“I’m for improvement and rehabilitation,” Reed said, adding he believes it is necessary to be conscious of the Earth and put back what is removed. He said cleaning up the contamination is important for residents and development alike.
“That would be wonderful,” he said.
The settlement involves two of three areas at the USS Lead Superfund site, the neighborhood that includes the elementary school and residences operated by the East Chicago Housing Authority and the neighborhood located between the Elgin & Joliet Railway Line on the west and Parrish Avenue on the east.
Cleanup of the third area of the Calumet neighborhood is still under discussion.