What happened in East Chicago?
The national attention Flint received may have sparked action to finally be taken in East Chicago, Indiana but there are thousands of low-income communities in the U.S. that are being poisoned because of environmental racism.
East Chicago – a predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhood – is one of those cities.
In July 2016, nearly 1,200 residents of the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago received a letter from the mayor ordering them to temporarily relocate because of high levels of lead and arsenic in the soil.
Other residents of Calumet received a notice from the EPA stating how high the lead and arsenic levels were around their homes. This was based on samples taken in December 2014.
That’s right. They were informed almost two years later.
According to EPA documentation, lead levels exceeded 5,000 parts per million when the standard level allowed is 400 parts per million.
The most contaminated yards showed lead levels 227 times above the allowable limit. Arsenic levels were 135 times above its limit.
By September 1, Mayor Anthony Copeland had informed residents they were being given 60 days to find a new home as the public housing complex would be demolished. This sent hundreds of low-income families scrambling to find a place to live in an area with a limited availability of affordable housing.
Many families were required to pay for their relocation costs out of pocket before voucher and rent reimbursement.
After 60 days nearly passed, only 29 of 332 families had found alternative housing. HUD had to extend its deadline to ensure all eligible residents had access to safe housing and relocation benefits.
Today, East Chicago is grappling with dislocation, health concerns and cleanup efforts.
670 children lived in that housing complex. By the end of summer 2016, city officials confirmed that 33 children younger than 7 years old had excessive lead in their bloodstream. With lead screenings still ongoing, it’s expected that more kids have been poisoned.
The EPA has found elevated levels of lead in drinking water in 18 of the 43 homes tested in a pilot study to determine if the contaminated soil caused lead in pipes to enter the water supply. The Northwest Indiana Times is reporting that up to 90 percent of homes in East Chicago have lead in their water lines.
Members from various community groups have now organized into the East Chicago Calumet Coalition to communicate needs and questions to the EPA. They are also working with lawmakers to draft legislation that provides financial assistance to aid in cleanup and testing, the school district and residents that were forced to relocate; including homeowners that need to sell their houses.
Many are wondering how government agencies let this happen and why action wasn’t taken sooner.
How did this happen?
There’s a lot of finger pointing and blame to go around, but it comes down to oversight and neglect.
The housing complex, the Carrie Gosch Elementary School and private homes in the Calumet neighborhood were built on the former U.S. Smelter and Lead facility (USS Lead). In 1970, the East Chicago Housing Authority landed a $13 million federal grant to build apartments and homes for hundreds of low-income residents on the defunct sites of lead manufacturers Eagle Picher Co. and Anaconda Copper Co.
In the 1980s, the Indiana State Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) levied several state actions against USS Lead for permit violations because of lead found blown downwind of the site. However, the only soil sample available from West Calumet was taken in 1985 by the EPA.
The sample was considered a benign test because it was pulled from the farthest point on the USS Lead site, the northwest corner of the housing complex and not within the footprint of where the smelter operated. Nothing registered above the allowable limit.
The EPA and state agencies began investigating if West Calumet should be added to the National Priorities List but eventually issued an Administrative Order on Consent for USS Lead to conduct a series of cleanup action under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act authority. Unfortunately, it only covered the USS Lead former property; not the neighborhood north of the site.
ISDH even started screening children, but no immediate action took place to inform residents. Officials rarely conducted tests to determine the extent of contamination even when children tested for lead under the census tract exceeded federal guidelines in the 90s.
Then came the renovation project of the Carrie Gosch Elementary School in 1997. Soil testing conducted at the edge of school property showed high lead levels. After a visit to the Calumet communities, federal and state agencies documented in a report, "An elementary school that services both communities (West Calumet and Calumet) is undergoing construction. Per the EPA project manager, this is the site of an old lead smelter (Anaconda)."
The report also stated, “The Calumet community, per the EPA project manager, is built on an old metal processing plant (Eagle Pitcher)."
The health effects of lead poisoning and the extent of lead contamination in residential soils are also listed as a community health concern in the report.
Yet no one said anything to the residents of East Chicago.
The EPA took more soil samples in 2003 and 2006 in areas north of the defunct USS Lead facility. Once again, they found high levels of lead contamination.
Eventually the agency declared the apartment complex and surrounding area a Superfund site in 2009. And even then residents didn’t know it was a Superfund site until they received the 2016 letter.
The EPA started to develop a cleanup plan for the site in 2012 but still did not inform residents.
Red flags were raised when city officials received a memo from the EPA cautioning workers to not cut the grass too short or use leaf blowers to avoid creating dust. Then West Calumet residents were urged to have their children screened for lead by health officials. Soon after, the EPA erected signs around the neighborhood warning children not to play in the yards.
It wasn't until 2016 when everything came to light. The EPA finally shared lead sampling results with the city.
For more than 30 years, state and federal government officials – including the EPA – knew the pollution and dust from the former smelter had contaminated the surrounding area and posed a serious health risk to residents, but did nothing to warn residents or protect their families.
Visit The Northwest Indiana Times for a full timeline of events.
Environmental advocate. Communications professional. Sports fan. I love television and press conferences.