EAST CHICAGO — EPA officials told a visibly upset community Thursday night their preferred cleanup plan for the lead- and arsenic-contaminated West Calumet Housing Complex could be altered if the city changes course on future use.
“We’re kind of in no man’s land here,” EPA Remedial Project Manager Tom Alcamo said. “Redevelopment will influence our final remedy. Right now, it’s residential, but we could get something from the city, prior to the Record of Decision amendment, and it could say (the city wants) industrial/commercial."
Before a packed community room at the East Chicago Public Library Pastrick branch, Alcamo said the EPA has no authority over Mayor Anthony Copeland’s plans for the former public housing site, adding that the agency always aligns Superfund site cleanup with the local property owner’s intended future use.
Since ordering families to evacuate from the West Calumet Housing Complex in summer 2016, the mayor has consistently urged EPA to clean to residential standards, though a concrete, definitive plan for future use has never publicly been made available.
Alcamo said as EPA finalized its cleanup proposals for public comment, the agency received a letter from Copeland in September indicating two unnamed developers have expressed interest in the site for industrial/commercial use.
The revelation came as a shock to community members who have advocated that the West Calumet site, once demolished and cleaned, be replaced with more housing.
Joseph Browder, a Calumet resident, said the city would “be trading one pollution for another” if Copeland opts for commercial/industrial development.
“So now we’re going to clean up the ground, but then we’re going to pollute our air,” Browder said.
Alcamo said Thursday night that EPA has now learned, through subsequent conversations, that the mayor’s office is committed to keeping the site residential — that is, until more concrete proposals for industrial/commercial formulate.
EPA attorney Rachel Zander said the agency could finalize a Record of Decision amendment that includes a contingency allowing EPA to go with a less stringent cleanup if the city changes its mind again.
“We can carry forward with the preferred alternative. We could select a different alternative when new information becomes available. Or there could be a ROD finalized that contains a contingency stating that we are going with the preferred alternative but if before a certain date, a certain level of concrete enough information comes in about redevelopment proposal, we would still have enough flexibility to change course,” Zander said.
Carl Wolf, of Hammond, asked EPA if the public has any recourse if the city changes its mind.
Alcamo said he doesn’t know, but encouraged residents to consider that potential contingency when submitting public comments.
Sherry Hunter, with Calumet Lives Matter, accused the mayor of working out deals with developers behind closed doors and ignoring CLM’s requests to meet and discuss future use in the neighborhoods within the USS Lead Superfund site.
‘Forgotten side of the city’
Multiple residents, attorneys and community members made the demand that Copeland attend the next meeting.
After the meeting, City Attorney Carla Morgan declined to say whether she would take residents’ appeal to Copeland for consideration, but noted the city often sends a representative to meetings and will continue to have a presence.
“I’m not going to respond directly to that,” Morgan said. “What I will say is all the key points from this meeting will be taken to the mayor.”
Morgan said Copeland, by sending that letter in September to EPA, thought it would be fair to let them EPA know of two interested developers.
His desire to have the property cleaned to residential standards has not changed, though he is open to all ideas about the highest, best possible use for the property, she added.
In the September letter to EPA, Copeland said the city’s vision for industrial and commercial use in Zone 1 could attract employers and new jobs to the area. A “high-tech training campus” is one possibility, he had said.
Cheryl Oliver, of the Calumet neighborhood, urged the city administration to put as many resources in the former West Calumet as it has in the city’s Harbor section.
“I’m not begrudging what’s happening in the Harbor. It’s beautiful. You see all these beautiful apartments and all. It’s really nice, and I read through all the stuff that comes from the mayor and I wonder ‘What’s the plan for Calumet?’ on this side of the Twin Cities,” Oliver said. “Whatever plan we come up with, I say Zone 1 should be just as glorious as what we see on Main Street and Broadway in the Harbor. We’re like the step-child, the forgotten side of the city.”
Weighing three major criteria — protectiveness, implementation and relative cost — EPA is proposing a seven-month, $26.5 million plan for West Calumet that digs to a maximum depth of two feet, treats severely contaminated soil and disposes of it at an off-site location.
About 235,000 tons of soil will be removed and institutional controls put in place, such as visible markers and digging restrictions to reduce exposure risks for future site users.
EPA opted against more expensive alternatives that dig to deeper depths, such as to native sand, because the the deeper the dig, the more complicated cleanup becomes, Alcamo said. The likelihood of hitting groundwater rises, as do contingency costs, but overall protectiveness remains the same, he said.
EPA officials said they have selected a cleanup plan consistent in scope with cleanup ongoing in the Calumet and East Calumet neighborhoods to the east. During excavation, air monitors will be installed to alert workers of elevated airborne dust levels, he said.
Several community members criticized the EPA for allegedly catering to the pocketbooks of polluters being held responsible for cleanup rather than selecting a plan most protective for the neighborhoods.
The community group Calumet Lives Matter urged EPA to select Alternative 4D.
The $48.8 million cleanup plan removes soil and debris leftover from the lead smelter demolished and buried there years ago to depths reaching clean native sand, disposes of it at an off-site location and treats the most contaminated soil using chemical stabilization.
“We know there’s been a lot of division in the community, but one of the things that we’re united on is we no longer want to be a sacrifice zone,” Thomas Frank, a member of Calumet Lives Matter said. “We want no institutional controls. We want this land to go forward in a full and clean way.”
Community members have also urged EPA to expedite its studies of groundwater of the area, in part, because they fear seepage in their basements and sump pumps draining contaminated groundwater could be contaminated properties EPA has cleaned.
“All of this is really backwards,” local activist Carolyn Marsh said.