EAST CHICAGO — Residents packed inside the Riley Park Recreational Center on Saturday, eager to ask how the EPA plans to remove lead- and arsenic-contaminated soil in the Calumet neighborhood.
But there were as many criticisms as there were questions during the three-hour session. Many questioned why it took so long for local, state and federal officials to act with any sense of urgency.
Sara Jimenez, who lives in the eastern part of the neighborhood, said she was never notified of results from samples taken five years ago, yet the most recent letter from the agency states her soil levels are high enough that it must be remediated.
“I was tested five years ago, never got my letter. I finally got my letter and I have high levels. Why did it take five years to get that?” Jimenez asked. “They never came and dug up. My neighbor got dug up, but we never got dug up.”
“That’s unfortunate, and you will get dug up. I apologize,” EPA Remedial Project Manager Tom Alcamo said.
Others vented frustrations over the companies responsible for the decades’ worth of pollution there.
“These (companies) are going to get away with poisoning us for 70, 80 years. Now they’re going to throw a little grass out there and it solves the problem? They’ve been poisoning people for years,” said Frank Kresich, who lives in the 4700 block of Euclid Avenue.
Though much of the focus this summer has been the highly contaminated West Calumet Housing Complex, the EPA plans to begin excavation work this fall at nearly 40 properties in cleanup zones 2 and 3 — the middle and eastern parts of the Calumet neighborhood, which falls within the federal agency’s USS Lead Superfund site.
Successors to companies responsible for contamination in those areas have reached a $26 million settlement with the federal government and the state to clean up zones 1 and 3. Alcamo said Saturday the EPA will initially fund cleanup in zone 2 but would consider an enforcement action against potentially responsible parties.
Alcamo said about 40 percent of zone 3 properties is under the EPA’s threshold for cleanup. Sampling in zone 2 is ongoing, but at least 20 out of 145 properties sampled so far will be targeted for cleanup this year, weather permitting.
Residents will have access to homes during cleanup, he told residents. To minimize the spread of dust, the EPA will spray down soil during excavation and monitor for airborne dust, Alcamo said.
Once backfill and topsoil is in, the EPA will cover that with sod or seed. Officials will try to preserve larger trees, but smaller ones may have to be removed and later replaced. Residents also asked the EPA to test basements that sustained flood damage in 2008.
Others asked why some yards are registering below the EPA’s cleanup threshold despite the house right next to them registering at soil concentration levels well above the EPA’s threshold for cleanup.
“We know now that there’s not only some windblown deposition but we suspect that some of these homes go back to the 1930s when people could have been, at one time, bringing in fill and maybe filling a low spot in their yard,” said Tim Drexler, an EPA remedial project manager. “(Contamination levels) are on a house-by-house basis.”