Public hearing at West Calumet Housing Complex

An EPA sign warns residents not to play in the dirt or around the mulch at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago.

EAST CHICAGO — The East Chicago Housing Authority board approved two resolutions Wednesday intending to help residents of a public housing complex where alarmingly high levels of lead and arsenic were found in the soil.

The resolutions authorized the use of the authority’s capital funds to help relocating West Calumet Housing Complex residents with security deposits at new homes and waived criminal background check requirements as part of the voucher process.

More than 1,000 residents, including nearly 700 children, have been given until Nov. 30 to move out after learning the full magnitude and extent of lead and arsenic contamination in the soil around their homes. The complex sits in the footprint of the long-ago-demolished Eagle Picher lead smelter and just north of USS Lead, a second factory.

The public housing complex is in the west end of the city’s Calumet neighborhood, which is part of an EPA Superfund site established in 2009.

It’s long been known the soil within the entire Calumet neighborhood is contaminated, but public housing residents were not expecting to have to permanently leave their homes as the city applies to HUD for the site’s demolition.

The EPA in 2012 selected a cleanup plan and reached an agreement in fall 2014 with Atlantic Richfield and DuPont for a $26 million cleanup in part of the USS Lead Superfund site. However, last month, the federal agency said cleanup of the property could be renegotiated depending on the city’s long-term plans for the area.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last month released $1.9 million to ECHA to provide vouchers so West Calumet Complex residents can permanently relocate.

A HUD spokesperson said this week it was seeking approximately $1.2 million in additional federal, state and local funds in hope of reimbursing the East Chicago Housing Authority for the agency’s use of its capital dollars.

The ECHA will continue to get its full annual capital grant funding for the West Calumet property, even after it is vacated, according to HUD. That grant totaled about $1.3 million this year, according to a HUD spokesperson.

Those capital dollars can be used for demolition, but also for other capital needs at other sites maintained by the local housing authority, according to HUD.

The city department typically receives that money from HUD as part of its annual allocation, said Nick Snow, an attorney with the Harris Law Firm, which represents the ECHA.

The second resolution, which waives criminal background checks, will help streamline the voucher process, Snow said.

The short meeting to approve the resolutions was attended by Tia Cauley, ECHA executive director and board secretary, and four of the board’s other members, including President Nancy Almason, Vice President Beatriz Martinez and commissioners Patricia Aguirre and Lorraine Reed. Commissioners Leon Samuel and Janice Moss and William Hazel were absent.

After the meeting, board members declined to comment further on the resolutions.

The ECHA recently came under fire from the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which has filed a housing discrimination complaint alleging the city department is not complying with obligations under federal law to safely relocate residents.

Additionally, HUD officials arrived in East Chicago two weeks ago to provide technical assistance, including housing counseling.

City officials have said they decided demolition was the safest option after learning in May of the levels found during extensive soil sampling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted in 2014-15.

Infrastructure in the area requires frequent repair, which is complicated by the hazardous soils, city records show. The city also had concerns that the EPA’s cleanup plan for the area would remove only a fraction of the contamination, leaving tainted dirt in place under paved streets, sidewalks, parking lots and buildings.

Times Reporter Lauren Cross contributed to this report.

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