EAST CHICAGO | Residents received their first peek at a federal proposal to clean up toxic amounts of lead and arsenic from a wide swath of the city's southeast side in a public hearing Wednesday night.
The Environmental Protection Agency is offering to remove up to 2 feet of contaminated soil — the legacy of several lead smelters and refineries that once operated around the Calumet neighborhoods — from the yards of as many as 723 homes.
"The EPA has a lot of experience with residential lead sites," Michael Berkoff, EPA project manager for the East Chicago cleanup since 2006, said during the meeting at the East Chicago Public Library.
Scientists sampled three properties per block in the 322-acre area bounded by Chicago Avenue on the north, 151st Street on the south, the Indiana Harbor Canal on the west and Parrish Avenue on the east and found lead levels as high as 9,406 parts per million and arsenic levels as high as 567 parts per million, Berkoff said.
EPA's recommended "protective" levels — to which the properties would be returned after the proposed cleanup — are listed as 400 parts per million for lead and 26.4 parts per million for arsenic.
"A 'part per million' is like one drop of water in a barrel full of water," Berkoff said Wednesday.
The site of the former U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery Inc., one of the now-closed plants that once stood at 151st Street and Kennedy Avenue, is part of the EPA's Superfund program, through which $28.9 million in federal funding is earmarked for the local cleanup project.
Mayor Anthony Copeland said he would like to see a "massive" cleanup of the neighborhoods, not just the roughly 57 percent of the 1,271 properties in the area with the worst measured contamination.
"It would be a missed opportunity," Copeland said. "Just removing dirt wouldn't really revitalize that area — for that amount of money, the benefits could be a lot more significant."
Redevelopment plans for the Calumet neighborhoods long have been stalled by the high cost of containing the toxic dust produced by complete demolitions of the many abandoned buildings in the area, and the foundations of unsafe structures torn down by the city have been left in place.
Public comment on the project will be accepted by EPA until Aug. 11, after which the responses will be evaluated in conjunction with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management before a schedule for design and implementation is set.
The timetable includes a possible 2014 start for the work, with two years estimated for its completion.
Copies of the complete EPA cleanup plan are available at both East Chicago Public Library locations, 2401 E. Columbus Drive and 1008 W. Chicago Ave., and online at http://epa.gov/region5/cleanup