U.S. Smelter & lead refinery
The former site of the U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery, Inc (USS Lead) operation is located on a 79-acre parcel of land in East Chicago, Indiana. The area is primarily industrial with nearby residential areas. The old plant location is bordered by the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad to the north, the East-West Toll Road and the East Branch of the Grand Calumet River to the south, Kennedy Avenue to the east, and Indiana Harbor Canal to the west. From 1906 to 1920, the company added a primary lead smelter to its operation. USS Lead converted to secondary smelting in 1973, recovering lead from scrap metal and old automobile batteries. All operations were discontinued in 1985. Two primary waste materials were generated as a result of the smelting operations: 1) blast furnace slag and 2) lead-containing dust emitted by the blast furnace stack. Blast furnace slag was stockpiled south of the plant building and once a year spread over an adjoining 21 acres of wetlands. The lead-containing dust was originally trapped in bag filters and stored in a three- to five-acre area for future recycling.
In 1975 and 1985, USS Lead received a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit to discharge furnace cooling water and storm water runoff to the Grand Calumet River. According to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), permit levels were exceeded for several materials. In the 1980s, several state and federal enforcement actions were taken against the company. In September 1985, the Indiana State Board of Health (ISBH) found USS Lead in violation of state law because lead particles were found downwind of the site.
Approximately four million people rely on drinking water drawn primarily from intakes in Lake Michigan, which is 15 miles downstream of where hazardous substances from the site enter surface water. Approximately 7,500 people work or attend school within two miles of the site.
Since 1985, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Corrective Action program has overseen the remediation and management of lead-contaminated soils within the boundaries of the U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery, Inc. facility. The remediation of the facility included the placement of the contamination in a Corrective Action Management Unit (CAMU). The remediation included the on-site wetlands. EPA sampled soil in the residential areas north of USS Lead as part of the RCRA Corrective Action investigation. Those sampling results showed that some yards in the East Chicago residential area had high levels of lead. The area includes about 1,500 homes, a few parks, schools, and public buildings. Many of the yards are located very close to the USS Lead Facility. In 2005, the EPA RCRA Corrective Action program referred the USS Lead site to the Superfund program for the cleanup of the residential portion of the site. In 2006, RCRA Corrective Action amended the referral to include the wetlands as a part of the referral.
EPA placed the USS Lead site on the National Priorities List in April 2009.