Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune for The Post-Tribune
Almost every time federal officials test a yard in northwest Indiana, they find staggering levels of brain-damaging lead in the soil.
The latest toxic neighborhoods uncovered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are near an abandoned smelter that churned lead, arsenic and other heavy metals into the air during most of the last century. Soil samples collected since October have identified more than two dozen contaminated yards in Hammond and Whiting, and EPA officials expect to find more as they expand their investigation.
In a situation eerily similar to the lead-contamination crisis still unfolding in nearby East Chicago, authorities failed to test residential areas next to the former Federated Metals property for more than three decades, even though the EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management designated it one of the region’s most toxic industrial sites in the mid-1980s.
Neighbors wonder why it took the federal agency so long to get involved. Based on interviews and a review of documents, the history of the shuttered Federated Metals smelter appears to have been all but forgotten until 2016, when career employees at the EPA’s Chicago office began digging through files on polluted sites in northwest Indiana that either haven’t been cleaned up or weren’t scoured thoroughly enough years ago.
“It leaves you thinking they really don’t care about us,” said David Dabertin, a Hammond attorney who led the state environmental agency’s northwest Indiana office during the early 1990s.
Nearly 10,000 people live within a mile of the former smelter. Between 2005 and 2015, 53 children younger than age 6 in census tracts surrounding the site had lead levels exceeding federal health guidelines — more than 8 percent of those tested, according to data provided by the Indiana State Department of Health.
The ongoing inquiry is part of the EPA’s response to national criticism of its slow reaction to polluted water in Flint, Mich., and lead-contaminated housing in East Chicago, where the EPA is overseeing the long-delayed removal of tainted soil from neighborhoods near other smelters that closed long ago. Crews are demolishing a housing complex after more than 1,000 low-income residents were forced to evacuate last year.
Like the EPA eventually did in East Chicago, officials began determining the scope of contamination near the Federated Metals site by testing publicly owned properties. They found levels of lead in the soil up to five times the federal cleanup standard for areas where children play, records show, prompting them to go door to door seeking soil samples from privately owned residential properties.
Of the 30 homes sampled last year, 25 had lead levels in soil exceeding the cleanup standard of 400 parts per million, records show. Nine of those yards had lead above 1,200 ppm in the top few inches of soil, with one as high as 2,760 ppm.
For now, the EPA has earmarked $1.7 million in taxpayer funds to remove contaminated soil around 20 homes where young children or pregnant women live. The agency is waiting for results from additional testing conducted in early April.
Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration’s embattled EPA administrator, drew attention to the investigation last month during a brief stop at one of the contaminated properties with Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb. But the two Republican officials left residents with more questions than answers about hidden hazards in working-class neighborhoods built during the last century around Federated Metals and other industries, including the sprawling BP refinery across Indianapolis Boulevard from the former smelter.
Most local officials and media were not informed of the visit until after Pruitt and Holcomb had left to tour the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting. The few public records summarizing what the EPA knows about Federated Metals weren’t posted online until after inquiries from the Tribune, unlike the extensive documentation typically provided for highly polluted sites in the agency’s Superfund program.
Pruitt’s staff later emailed reporters a photograph of the EPA administrator shaking hands with Holcomb, flanked by Cathy Stepp, the agency’s regional administrator, and Whiting Mayor Joseph M. Stahura. Yet there has been little public outreach from the agency about its plans in Whiting and the Robertsdale neighborhood of Hammond.
Indiana officials did not respond to emailed questions. The EPA declined to make officials available for an interview, instead sending a prepared statement from Stepp on Friday.
“With our sustained cooperation and teamwork — and Administrator Pruitt’s personal attention — very soon impacted families in Hammond and Whiting will no longer face an unacceptable threat from lead-contaminated soil in their own backyards,” Stepp said in the statement.
On Lakeview Street, just north of the former smelter, several residents interviewed last week said they were unaware of the EPA investigation.
Steve Krajnik, a retired postal worker who has lived on the street his entire life, said he turned agency officials away when they asked for permission to collect a soil sample from his yard. He initially said he wasn’t concerned about lead hazards at his age, but later suggested why families with young children might have reason to be concerned.
“At night they would just let the smoke pour out of the Federated building,” said Krajnik, 80, noting his father built their family’s house in the early 1930s around the same time the smelter began operating. “On some nights my dad would come home from bowling, and the smoke was so thick you couldn’t see a thing.”
Federated Metals operated at the site from 1937 to 1983. The company was subject to a state enforcement action in 1985 and a pair of federal legal settlements that demanded an immediate cleanup. But for reasons still unexplained by state and federal regulators, toxic slag and other hazardous waste dumped throughout the property wasn’t removed until the mid-2000s.
Throughout the years, state and federal records show, regulators were more concerned about toxic chemicals leaching in groundwater than soil contaminated with heavy metals. There is no reference to residential testing in any of the historical summaries made public so far.
“This is another example of the EPA and the state of Indiana dropping the ball time after time again,” said Mark Templeton, director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago, who has not been involved in the Federated Metals case but represents citizens in other regional disputes.
Most of the on-site waste was sealed in a landfill next to the smelter building along Lake George. Earlier this year, records show, the EPA traced the lead found in surrounding neighborhoods by comparing the ratio of metals in samples collected from the landfill with those obtained from residential yards.
Dabertin, the former regional director of the state environmental agency, asked Pruitt and Holcomb during their recent visit why the federal and state governments have allowed other lead-processing companies to operate on the site since Federated Metals closed. In December, the state of Indiana renewed an air pollution permit for the current occupant, Whiting Metals, and rejected calls from Dabertin and others to hold a hearing to address public concerns.
It is unclear how much lead Whiting Metals emits into the air. The facility is small enough that it is not required to submit information to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, a public database created in response to chemical disasters.
“You are telling these people there is lead in their backyard, but (the state environmental agency) just permitted that facility to produce lead,” Dabertin says to Holcomb on a video posted on Facebook by Thomas Frank, another local activist. “That’s a disconnect.”
Holcomb nodded toward the smelter property and promised Dabertin he would look into the matter. Dabertin said he still hasn’t heard back from the governor.