EPA begins digging out soil contaminated with lead in East Chicago

FOX 32 NEWS - A massive cleanup is now underway in East Chicago, Indiana, where hundreds of yards are contaminated with lead and arsenic.

The contamination took place over decades. It’s the result of several lead smelting companies in the area.

FOX 32's Dane Placko reports that residents are pleased, but wondering what took so long.

Mary Poe talked to FOX 32 in front of her East Chicago home, because the backyard is a hazmat zone.

On Monday, crews working for the Environmental Protection Agency stripped off the top 12 inches of soil - and everything planted in it - after tests found high levels of arsenic in Poe’s backyard.

"I like the fact that they're cleaning up the yards, excavating the soil and bringing in new soil. But still the health issues that occurred previously, they can't be wiped away,” Poe said.

Poe is among the first of 238 homes scheduled for remediation after the EPA found unsafe amounts of lead and arsenic in their soil – and in some cases nearly ten times the threshold level.

After stripping the soil and disposing it at a hazmat facility, crews bring in clean fill and cap it with six inches of black topsoil, along with new plants and grass.

"To make sure that when we finish and restore the property, we get it close as we can back to its original conditions. So that people are happy with the work that we do,” said Tim Drexler of the EPA.

But a few blocks away, it’s a much different story as some 12-hundred residents of the West Calumet housing complex are looking for new homes after East Chicago’s mayor ordered a slow-motion evacuation because of the lead contamination.

Attorney Barry Rooth is suing on behalf of residents, some of whom have children with elevated levels of lead in their blood.

"The city knew. The EPA knew. HUD knew. The city health department knew about the problems. The last people to know were the residents,” Rooth said.

The EPA says it should be able to remediate 19 homes before winter sets in this year. But that still leaves 219 houses in this particular zone and it could take a couple years.

"I think it's a good idea but I think it's a little late. A lot late. This happened 30, 40 years ago,” said homeowner Clarence Morris.

But neighbor Frank Kresich says there's a reason nobody complained back in the day - jobs.

"This is an industrial town,” Kresich said. "They knew the air was dirty, but they said that's bread and butter."

The EPA says it's waiting for East Chicago to decide what to do with the public housing complex before it determines when and how it will clean up the soil on that site.