(This piece was originally published on June 8, 2017 in the Northwest Indiana Times.)

EAST CHICAGO — Residents are requesting more time — and a formal public hearing — to weigh in on demolition plans for the lead- and arsenic-tainted West Calumet Housing Complex, citing potential effects on neighboring high-minority, low-income communities.

A public hearing is both justified — “due to the magnitude and duration this Superfund site has had on the surrounding community” — and supported by federal National Environmental Policy Act regulations, residents and a coalition of attorneys argued Wednesday in a letter to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s public housing director, Patricia Tyus.

HUD first published its environmental review of the site May 26, along with the federal agency’s findings that the demolition would have “no significant impact on the human environment.” The public comment period is open until June 13, but residents are seeking both a public hearing and an extension through July 13.

A HUD spokesman said Wednesday the residents’ requests are under review.

The low-income public housing complex, built in the early 1970s on the footprint of a former lead smelter, is the most highly contaminated area of the Environmental Protection Agency’s USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago. Soil cleanup is ongoing in the nearby Calumet and East Calumet neighborhoods.

East Chicago Housing Authority officials hope to begin tearing down the complex this fall.

The project scope covered under HUD’s review is limited only to demolition; it does not address detailed soil excavation of the site or future land use.

“Last year, the East Chicago Housing Authority deemed that this contamination justified the evacuation of the more than 1,000 residents of the facility,” residents and attorneys argue in the letter.

“Even acknowledging that the specific project at issue concerns only demolition and not future remediation of the contaminated site, adjacent and nearby residents have concerns that warrant a public hearing.”

The letter is signed by 18 residents, along with Sam Henderson, staff attorney for the Hoosier Environmental Council; Mark Templeton, an attorney at the University of Chicago Law School’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic; Debbie Chizewer, an attorney at Northwestern University Pritzker Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic; and Kate Walz, housing justice director for the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

Residents also cite a HUD 1994 executive order on environmental justice that directs the agency to “identify and address disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.”

Nearly all the 13,600 residents in a 1-mile radius are considered a minority population and 60 percent are low-income.

Federal and local housing officials have said demolition is warranted to protect human health. However, residents say they want to ensure proper oversight during demolition activities to protect workers and nearby residents from exposure to contaminated soil and asbestos-containing building material.

There also are concerns about how the work will affect the flow of contamination in the groundwater and how groundwater will be treated on site.

Extension request to July 13

Residents also requested more time to respond to HUD’s findings, citing the complex and technical nature of the environmental assessment and supporting documents.

When making a “finding of no significant impact,” HUD environmental review regulations require the responsible entity — in this case, HUD — to both issue a notice and “send the … notice to individuals and grounds known to be interested in the activities, to the local news media, to appropriate trial, local, State and Federal agencies …” the letter stated.

The notice of HUD’s findings appeared in local media’s public notices section May 26. However, none of the relevant community organizations and members were made aware and thus were “hindered in their opportunity to comment,” the letter stated.

Local housing officials first submitted an application to demolish West Calumet last summer — around the same time East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland sent letters to the 300-plus families living at the complex urging more than 1,000 people, including 680 children, to leave due to dangerously high levels of lead and arsenic in the soil.

All but six households have relocated, as of May 31.


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