EAST CHICAGO — A crowd of about 30 residents gathered in the former Carrie Gosch School auditorium to give public comment on plans to turn the contaminated land that once held the West Calumet Housing Complex into a light industrial facility.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hopes to enter a prospective purchaser agreement with Industrial Development Advantage, LLC. IDA has been working with East Chicago since 2019 to develop a campus that includes plans for a 500,000-square-foot warehouse and logistics center on the former West Calumet Housing Complex land.

The proposed agreement would require IDA to remove lead- and arsenic-contaminated soil to a depth of 1 foot, dispose of it off-site and backfill and cover excavated areas. EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management would oversee the cleanup and ensure it meets EPA requirements.

The parcel, which EPA calls "modified Zone 1," includes land once occupied by the now-demolished public housing complex, Goodman Park and a utilities corridor.

Zone 1 was included in a 2014 consent decree for the U.S. Lead Superfund site, which also included an eastern portion of the Calumet neighborhood called Zone 3, which has been fully remediated.

East Chicago officials initially called for Zone 1 to be cleaned to the same residential standard as Zone 3. However, the city changed course in December 2019 and abandoned plans to build new housing at the site.

Instead, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland sent a letter to EPA stating he had signed a letter of intent to sell the site to IDA.

The move angered residents, who had been pushing for new housing at the site. Many of those evacuated from the housing complex in 2017 and 2018 wanted to return, they said.

During the public hearing, which was organized by EPA, residents shared a long list of concerns: that the truck traffic created by the logistics center would worsen air quality, that East Chicago needs more housing and that EPA's remediation standards for manufacturing districts areas are not as stringent as for areas zoned residential.

"It is important that we make sure we are not perpetuating racial inequity in this cleanup process. My question is if we were building mansions on this site, if we were building condominiums on this site, would we clean this site up to the point where we would have no more issues at this site? What I hear is a Band-Aid," Pastor Antonio Daggett said.

EPA Project Manager Tom Alcamo said it is likely less material will be excavated now that the area is zoned for manufacturing, "but what we look at from a standpoint is risk. You're going to have a building over that entire property with hardscape, so when you look at risk you ask, 'are individuals going to inhale that material?'"

Alcamo said the answer is no because the land will be covered with cement and other impenetrable materials. Though the soil will be disturbed during the construction process, EPA will implement an extensive air monitoring system.

Steve Radel of IDA said the warehouse and logistics center would be a $75 million investment and would create between 400 and 900 jobs. IDA has plans to work with local organizations to create job training programs. Radel also said IDA has experience working with Superfund sites and assured residents that no trucks would go through neighborhoods, instead of using 151st Street.

East Chicago Councilman Terence Hill, D-3, said he fully supports the project. He has lived in the area his entire life and said the development would help spur needed economic growth.

"If not homes, then what else are you going to put there?" Hill said. "I believe the EPA."

Several other speakers echoed Hill's sentiment, saying the added jobs and investment would benefit the East Chicago community. However, multiple former West Calumet residents said that after years of environmental injustice, they are no longer certain they can trust EPA.

“I am in favor of economic development for the city, ... but as an environmental injustice community, the minimum is being done for this cleanup. ... We are a population that has already experienced significant challenges from existing exposure,” Maritza Lopez said.

Lopez added that she feared the logistics facility would further degrade surrounding home values.

EPA is also seeking public comment on the proposed explanation of significant differences, which would officially select a commercial/industrial remedy for the site, and a proposed administrative settlement agreement and order on consent.

The draft agreement and order on consent would require five companies, all of which owned and operated lead-processing facilities in the area, to provide financial assurances totaling $13.5 million for future cleanup efforts. The companies also would agree to reimburse EPA $18 million in past cleanup costs.

IDA is expected to acquire the property after EPA finalizes the proposed agreements, EPA said.

A 30-day comment period closes June 3.
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