Dana Robinson and Sean McGough look down at their daughter, Maeve, as she drifts in and out of sleep after a walk Tuesday in Whiting. The couple worry for their daughter’s health once she starts crawling due to the high levels of lead in their soil. Photo by Ty Vinson, The Times
Dana Robinson and Sean McGough look down at their daughter, Maeve, as she drifts in and out of sleep after a walk Tuesday in Whiting. The couple worry for their daughter’s health once she starts crawling due to the high levels of lead in their soil. Photo by Ty Vinson, The Times
WHITING — The 1905 cape cod home on Fred Street had undeniable charm with its beige brick façade, wrought iron fence and evergreen tree out front.

Being located within walking distance of the city’s downtown and lakefront was a plus, too.

But the Whiting couple who purchased the home in March 2016 now say they had no way of knowing about a clandestine issue lurking below the charm.

It's an environmental and potential health issue that has them — and the surrounding area — in limbo as government agencies assess how to act.

'We love the house'

The home's charm is what attracted Region natives Dana Robinson and Sean McGough to the Whiting neighborhood more than three years ago — in spite of it being at the higher end of their price range and at the top of the market, they said.

“Is this going to be a good place for the baby to grow up and play? That’s what we were envisioning,” said Sean McGough, 36, a union organizer and workers' rights advocate.

“We love the house and really enjoy what Whiting has to offer as a community," Sean McGough said.

But about two years after settling in to the home, a jarring and unwelcome invitation arrived by mail, the couple said.

In May 2018, Dana said they said they received a postcard from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: An invitation to a meeting at the local YMCA about how soil testing confirmed their yard and dozens of others were contaminated with lead and arsenic.

'Sensitive populations'

Legacy contamination from the nearby old Federated Metals site in the Robertsdale neighborhood is the culprit, EPA has said.

The plant at 2230 Indianapolis Blvd. operated from 1937 until it closed in 1987. EPA, acting under its Resource Conservation and Recovery Act program, consolidated waste there from 2003 to 2006.

It wasn't until 2016 that EPA returned, suspecting off-site contamination near Federated Metals in light of the lead crisis in East Chicago that made national headlines that same year. Dangerous levels of lead discovered in the soil forced more than 1,200 people to evacuate the West Calumet Housing Complex, built on top of a lead smelter.

In that case, EPA investigated the site for decades and were criticized by local government for a lack of urgency.

EPA soil sampling that year confirmed suspicion that pollution from smokestacks had spread beyond the Federated Metals site.

Surprised to learn their new house was sitting on contaminated land, Dana attended the May 2018 meeting to learn more.

She described the meeting as “chaotic." People living outside the boundaries of the study area were really upset, she said.

“They wanted their soil tested too. But (EPA was) really firm, saying you had to be in this affected area and be part of a sensitive population,” said Dana, who teaches with the School City of Hammond.

The study area is bounded by the alley between 119th Street and Fischrupp Avenue to the north, extending to Atchison on the west and White Oak Avenue to the east. The southern border is located between George Lake Trail and East Lakeview Street.

About 590 properties within the boundaries are in the Whiting portion of the study site, according to Denise Sejna, city attorney for Whiting.

About 121 were tested by the EPA. Just 10 Whiting properties qualified for cleanup and were excavated, she said. The rest of the homes are in Hammond.

'You think the worst'

Since that meeting, Dana and Sean's family has grown by one. Their 15-week-old daughter, Maeve, is only a few months away from crawling, and what should be a happily anticipated milestone is a now marred with fear that Maeve will be exposed to brain-damaging lead once she starts crawling and exploring the family home and backyard.

Children are particularly at-risk when exposed to lead, because their bodies are growing quickly. Children also tend to put their hands to their mouths more often, and even at low doses, lead can cause behavioral problems and irreversible learning disabilities.

When Dana attended the May 2018 meeting, she said she was pregnant — but not with Maeve.

“We’ve had a couple of (miscarriages),” she said. “When I had them, I didn’t think it was anything having to do with the environment, and there’s still no way to know.”

Sean said the couple both tested negative for lead after the meeting, which put their minds somewhat at ease. Dana said she is speaking with her pediatrician about blood testing for Maeve.

“At the time, we didn’t know, and it was scary to hear, because you hear lead and you think the worst.”

Robinson said she used to grow tomatoes in the garden, but stopped once she learned of the elevated lead levels in the backyard. The couple now grows herbs, spices and other plants in separate hanging planters on their porch.

'They've run out of money'

In April 2018, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt made an unannounced visit to the site and authorized $1.7 million for removal of lead-contaminated soil here, allowing EPA to address the worst of the worst in terms of contamination.

According to EPA, the agency has since spent about $2.7 million so far on pre-excavation, property cleanup and restoration.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, Region 5 leader, governor quietly visit Federated Metals site
EPA lead hazard standards — last established in the 1990s — recommend soil cleanup when levels exceed 400 parts per million, the federal limit for areas in which children play.

But a lack of funding means the majority of the yards in EPA's study area have been left untouched.

Soil sample results provided to the Times show Dana and Sean’s backyard levels at 435 ppm, or slightly above the federal agency’s residential cleanup removal standard.

By EPA’s own safety standards, their soil level should warrant action, they said, but so far, EPA has only had enough money to clean yards deemed critically necessary: homes in which pregnant women and children younger than 7 reside and at which lead levels exceed 1,200 parts per million.

Both criteria had to be met, according to the EPA.

EPA made just one exception: a parcel just north of Federated Metals registered levels above 1,200 ppm, and EPA decided to excavate there because it's known as a play area for children.

“EPA told us they’re done. They’ve run out of money,” Whiting Mayor Joe Stahura said last week when reached for comment. “Without a Superfund designation, EPA is finished. So this project is an IDEM project, but IDEM has no money,” he said. “So we have two, really three, choices: We can do nothing and act like everything’s OK, we can clean it up ourselves or we can see if this qualifies as a Superfund site."

Superfund reputation

Since EPA's Superfund program was established in 1980, the agency has designated more than 1,300 sites as a Superfund, or land contaminated by hazardous waste. The program allows EPA to clean hazardous waste sites and “to force responsible parties to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for cleanups led by EPA.”

Stahura said he fears a Superfund site designation could damage the city’s reputation and plummet property values in the years to come — just as Whiting is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into its lakefront and recreational and downtown areas.

“I’ve got 1,600 parcels in Whiting, so half my entire housing population and a lot of my commercial business would be classified as Superfund. In anybody’s world, that’s a tough decision. We could go with Superfund because it’s free money. But we want to see if there’s another option,” he said.

With an annual municipal operating budget of $7 million, Stahura said it’s impossible for a city of this size to tackle a $25 million to $35 million project, even in the long term.

Stahura said he recently met with Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. to discuss local funding options. Since EPA only tested a small percentage of the Whiting properties, more testing is needed to determine the full scope of the problem, Stahura said.

He said he hopes the cities can work with an environmental consultant to test the remaining homes aggressively.

“Because right now, I don’t have enough data to say I can bite off that amount of money. Unless I go to a referendum and raise everyone’s taxes, it’s not a solution. And if anyone thinks the city is sitting on cash, they’re living in crazy world,” he said.

McDermott echoed Stahura’s concerns about Superfund designation, noting Hammond has invested heavily in commercial redevelopment and in revitalizing its neighborhoods, bike trails and other recreation areas, including Wolf Lake and Lake George.

“Look what happened in East Chicago. It doesn’t look good for the city if we become a Superfund site,” McDermott said.

IDEM report pending

Stahura said he is awaiting word from IDEM’s Office of Land Quality, which is assessing the potential for the site to qualify for Superfund status and federal funding.

IDEM told The Times the report is in the draft stage and must be reviewed and approved by EPA before it can be made public. IDEM declined to say when it may be released.

Ex-EPA attorney and Hammond resident David Dabertin harshly criticized state and local governments for not doing more to move the cleanup along.

“It’s shocking the way this whole thing was put together and how this happened. Nobody is doing anything, nothing. There’s money that could be tapped tomorrow, but nobody is using it,” Dabertin said. “This is a construction season. They should be cleaning up. No one is seeking out money.

“Everybody says they’re ‘monitoring the situation.’ No one seems to want to work on this, like ‘It’s not my job.’ It’s like monitoring the Titanic as it goes to the bottom of the ocean."

IDEM declined to answer additional questions from The Times about the site and recent conversations about funding options with federal and local governments, deferring questions about those discussions to EPA.

EPA told The Times it takes an average of three to four years to move a site from preliminary assessment to consideration for Superfund.

"Many factors are considered when designating a (National Priorities List) site including whether a site can be addressed by other cleanup authorities and EPA’s policy for state concurrence on the decision to list a site on the NPL," EPA said.

'Nobody's going to buy'

On a recent Monday morning, Sean and Dana took turns cradling Maeve as they talked with a friend and local realtor, Nathan Reeder, about their home-buying experience and what they plan to do next.

"Now, we have to disclose there's lead in the soil. And they're not removing it because it's not a high enough level," Sean said. "So we're in the middle area where we got it tested, we have to disclose it. There's not enough lead for them to remove it, but there's enough lead for us to have to disclose it. Nobody's going to buy..."

"I mean, the market would have to be pretty hot for that to happen," Reeder responded. "But this is the top of the market. So what's going to happen if the market slows down?"

In Indiana, sellers must disclose if they are aware of the presence of lead paint in the home — which doesn't address lead-contaminated dust or soil. On the disclosure form, they must also say whether they received any notices from a government agency "affecting this property."

Reeder said he thinks EPA should have conducted outreach with the realtors group so he and others could properly inform clients about environmental risks — even though it will make selling more difficult.

He said there should be an open dialogue between EPA and IDEM with the residents, realtors association, banking investors, the Lakeshore and Whiting chambers of commerce and the business community.

Door-to-door outreach would have been helpful for renters, too, because landlords and property owners received EPA government notification — not the tenants.

EPA said Friday the agency conducted outreach through public meetings, mailings and direct contact with Whiting and Hammond governments, School City of Whiting, the Hammond Port Authority, IDEM, the county health department and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

EPA said it does not share site-specific data due to privacy concerns, unless they are in a data-sharing agreement with an eligible agency.

Last month, Reeder sounded off on this very topic in East Chicago, where the EPA's Office of the Inspection General held a listening session as part of its investigation into the agency's effectiveness in communicating health risks to residents living in Superfund sites.

"When I represent a buyer, I'm going to make sure they know about this, but there's 2,500 other realtors out there. And they're not going to necessarily know," Reeder said. "How am I supposed to sell a house in this area with a clear conscience?"

Absent the site being designated under Superfund, EPA's activities at the site are largely complete.

Soil samples were collected from 242 properties to determine the extent of historic lead contamination from the Federated Metals plant. The assessment found 163 residential yards that had soil lead levels above EPA’s health standard of 400 ppm.

Just 33 properties have been excavated — hundreds more require testing.
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