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Hundreds of residents left. Now their tainted building is nearly demolished

Photo by Wikimedia

EAST CHICAGO, Ind. — Contractors are nearly finished leveling a public housing complex in northwestern Indiana two years after about 1,000 residents were told to leave because of lead and arsenic contamination.

Demolition of the West Calumet Housing Complex is set for completion in August, but questions remain about what will become of the tainted East Chicago acreage that once housed a lead smelter, The Post-Tribune reported . Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are still evaluating how best to clean up the site.

The EPA said in a statement that it “continues to evaluate data and hopes to announce a cleanup plan for public comment in late summer or early fall.”

Mayor Anthony Copeland told about 300 families to leave the housing complex in 2016 after learning of high levels of lead and arsenic in soil at the site. Tests also found high lead levels in blood samples taken from some children.

The last of the residents moved from the complex in June 2017 following a lengthy relocation process.

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt put the Superfund site that encompasses East Chicago’s Calumet neighborhood on a list of 21 sites across the country in need of immediate and intense attention.

The city has asked the EPA to clean the site to residential standards after demolition is completed. Copeland said the city will begin seeking input for potential future land uses after the site is cleaned.

Crews are expected to finish demolition by mid-August, said John Blosky, Amereco Engineering principal. The remaining demolition work includes a few houses along the southeast side of the development, and the final work will include taking down a guard shack and removing the asphalt, he said.

The EPA is working on a feasibility study to explore alternatives for the remediation of the complex once demolition finishes.

The West Calumet site sits in an area of winding canals, rivers and aging factories about 25 miles southeast of downtown Chicago across the border in Indiana, and was home to mostly African-American and Hispanic residents. From 1906 to 1985, a plant melting lead and copper in a process called smelting spewed toxic particles into the air that settled into the soil of residential yards throughout the area.