HAMMOND — The Justice Department asked a federal judge Monday to grant the EPA access to nine properties in zone 3 of the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago, where the owners have refused to allow the agency to test soil or failed to respond to requests for access.
Five of the nine properties apparently are occupied, including one where tenants recently moved in, but the owner refused to grant access to the Environmental Protection Agency, court records show.
Of the 481 properties in zone 3, all owners have granted EPA access except the nine targeted in the request filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Hammond.
EPA sought the warrants to ensure the protection of human health and the environmental, an agency spokeswoman said. The U.S. Marshals Service will serve the nine property owners with court filings.
"Properties with lead and/or arsenic contamination exceeding (remedial action levels) are randomly dispersed throughout zone 3," EPA remedial project manager Sarah Rolfes wrote in a legal filing.
"Properties that are not contaminated are adjacent to properties that are. There is no way to predict whether a property will be contaminated or not. The only way to determine the presence of either lead or arsenic in quantities exceeding the remedial action levels is to sample the property."
In total, soil has been excavated at 582 properties in zones 2 and 3, EPA said.
Eleven properties in zone 3 and 151 properties in zone 2 still require excavation, though the numbers could change based on future sampling. EPA has not yet started excavation in zone 1, the site of the now-demolished West Calumet Housing Complex.
Records: Landlord refused testing
An EPA contractor worked to secure access agreements with property owners from November 2014 to March 2017, court records say.
EPA officials subsequently began attempting to contact Carmen Hurtado, the owner of a three-unit building at 4805 Grasselli Ave., in February 2018, court records say.
EPA staff sent several letters, which were returned unclaimed, and visited the property several times during the first half of 2018.
EPA officials spoke with tenants during visits to the property in July and August, and one of the tenants expressed an interest in having the soil tested.
An EPA official reached Hurtado by phone in late August, and she said she preferred to speak Spanish, court records say.
A Spanish-speaking EPA employee then called, and she told him "her home insurance agent had advised her against sampling," court records state.
The EPA employee "made several attempts to convince Ms. Hurtado of the wisdom of sampling, but she still refused," a legal filing says.
Hurtado then asked the EPA employee how he got her phone number and told him she planned to change her number. She refused to provide her current address, court records say.
Communication attempts unanswered
Carol Webb, of 4744 Drummond St., and John Pavnic, of 4845 Ivy St., refused to grant EPA access to their properties, records show. Pavnic told an EPA official "he considered the possibility of contamination as the next owner's problem" and "has no interest in dealing with it."
Andrew Klobuchar, of 4807 Euclid Ave., and Maurice Monroe, of 4828 Parrish Ave., have not responded to multiple attempts to reach them, court records state.
Four of the nine properties for which EPA is seeking an administrative warrant are unoccupied.
The owners of 4924 Euclid Ave. and 4902-04 Ivy St. are deceased, and the homes are abandoned.
The owners at 4907 Drummond St. and 4913 Drummond St. could not be located, and the properties appear to be abandoned, court records say.
The sampling will be conducted outside of each home and will take about four hours to complete.
EPA is currently revising its feasibility study for zone 1, which was evacuated after the East Chicago Housing Authority informed residents it would be demolishing the West Calumet Housing Complex.
East Chicago has said the land will be zoned as residential, EPA said, so the agency is evaluating cleanup options.
"When the revised feasibility study is complete, the public will have an opportunity to review and submit comments," EPA said.