Arsenic fears didn't stall cleanup at school

By The Associated Press

EAST CHICAGO — Federal authorities are forging ahead with the Superfund cleanup of a lead-contaminated former school in northwestern Indiana, despite residents' concerns about the potential health risk from arsenic at the site.

The Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing the project to remove contaminated soil that began July 8 at the former Carrie Gosch Elementary school site in East Chicago. Concerned residents have said the agency moved too fast and ignored their concerns about a lack of adequate testing.

Mark Templeton, an attorney for opponents of the project, told The (Northwest Indiana) Times that the EPA does not inspire trust when it pushes ahead without addressing valid questions about testing and scope.

"EPA responses are often: 'There's no problem here. Trust us,'" Templeton said. "So you have EPA saying there's no problem here, without supporting documents."

The EPA said in a statement that it fielded public comments about the project in 2012 and is now "implementing the remedy selected" at that time.

That agency said "the original cleanup plan is still appropriate" and added that it had distributed informational flyers to the community before the cleanup began.

Private contractors have already removed 24 inches (60 centimeters) of clean top soil to reveal the contaminated earth beneath and covered the excavated site with tarps.

Templeton said opponents believe the EPA did not take enough samples to determine if arsenic exists at the site and that when it did, it relied too heavily on X-ray Fluorescence testing. According to the agency's own records, those tests can be inaccurate if lead and arsenic are both present, he said, adding that his clients desperately want EPA to conduct more tests to ensure the excavations will not endanger the community.

"Contamination was identified there in the late 1990s, and no records have been made available to establish the soil was ever remediated," Templeton said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says long-term exposure to arsenic — usually through drinking water — can lead to an increased risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and several types of cancer. The American Academy of Pediatrics says extended exposure to lead can inhibit a child's brain development.

The School City of East Chicago district superintendent relocated hundreds of Carrie Gosch Elementary students in August 2016 after dangerous lead levels were discovered at a property near the school.

The Superfund site includes the now-demolished West Calumet Housing Complex, where about 1,000 people were forced from their apartments after tests in 2016 found high lead levels in blood samples of some children. Soil tests found lead levels significantly above the federal safety standard.

East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland in April requested a more protective cleanup of West Calumet, urging the EPA to remove contaminated soil down to native sand, instead of just removing up to two feet (60 centimeters) of material.

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