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In East Chicago, Knowing Your Soil Is Toxic Is Only Half the Battle

Because it can take years before the government does anything about it.
The West Calumet housing complex was built over the site of the Anaconda White Lead Company (pictured), which smelted or processed lead for decades.

Courtesy of the East Chicago Public Library

Maritza Lopez pulled a postcard out of her mailbox five years ago. It was an invitation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asking her to attend a public meeting about the lead and arsenic contamination of her neighborhood in East Chicago, Indiana. The what? She’d never heard about the threats posed by these toxins and certainly never considered that the soil around her home might have something to do with her arthritis, kidney problems, or cancer.

Lopez attended the meeting. She learned she spent her entire life living on top of a Superfund site, which is contaminated land designated for government cleanup due to its risks to human health and the environment. That designation, according to Lopez, “was kept a nice little secret.”

It wasn’t, of course, a secret to the EPA, which declared 322 acres of the city a Superfund site in 2009, or to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, which found high levels of lead in East Chicago soils way back in 1985. In fact, what’s happening there right now—the disorganized and forced removal of more than 1,000 people out of a public housing complex and the toxic threats other East Chicagoans like Lopez continue to face—illustrates the communication voids that can occur between local and federal governments and the people they’re supposed to protect, all too often in low-income communities of color.

Located just over the Illinois border in Indiana, East Chicago is home to almost 30,000 residents, most of whom are either black or Latino. The median household income is $27,000, according to the most recent census report, and residential areas are interspersed between industrial facilities. Several lead and chemical factories once operated here, and while most closed their doors by the 1990s, they left behind a toxic legacy—one that the government has been slow to act on.

Families outside the West Calumet housing complex, which must be torn down due to extremely high lead levels in the soil

Jonathan Miano/AP

In 1997, the EPA took 29 soil samples from throughout the city and found lead levels to be high enough to warrant emergency action in eight of them. When the agency tested the soil again in 2014, it found that at one site, the lead level was as high as 91,000 parts per million (the EPA’s acceptable level for residential properties is 400 ppm). Instead of letting residents know right away, the agency waited two more years before releasing the data.

When the results finally became public last summer, Mayor Anthony Copeland told the 1,100 residents of the West Calumet public housing complex, built in 1972, that the buildings would be torn down and they had to move out.

After the news broke, local Indianans pushed for then-governor Mike Pence to declare East Chicago a disaster area, which would have given the city funds to address the problem. Pence refused. In February, after Governor Pence became vice president, the new governor, Eric Holcomb, made that disaster declaration.

Unfortunately, toxic soil isn’t East Chicago’s only problem. An EPA study conducted in fall 2016 found dangerously high levels of lead in the city’s drinking water.

In response, NRDC served a petition on behalf of local and regional advocacy groups asking the EPA to step in to address the water contamination issue, including by supplying safe drinking water to all East Chicago residents. “The EPA has to do more than simply identify a problem—the agency must step in and actually take measures to address the public health crisis,” says Anjali Waikar, an NRDC attorney who focuses on environmental justice in the Midwest. “We are asking the agency to provide bottled water and filters to the community until a long-term fix is in place.” The EPA has not yet responded, but NRDC is now also pushing for the agency to oversee the water treatment in East Chicago, in light of new evidence that the local authority’s corrosion-control measures may have actually contributed to the water contamination problem.

Since the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, emerged two years ago, our country’s contaminated communities have gotten more media attention. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt visited East Chicago in April, meeting with residents there. An EPA spokesman assured the press that his agency would help, but people there remain skeptical that the Trump administration will actually do so. And for good reason: Instead of shoring up programs to identify industrial threats and help low-income and minority communities, Trump and company have been trying to weaken pollution protections.

In East Chicago, local politicians haven’t been much help either. According to Lopez, Mayor Copeland seems more concerned with redeveloping the West Calumet housing complex than the health of the city’s citizens. Despite the EPA’s urging, Copeland hasn’t yet revealed his plans for redevelopment, which has prevented the agency from moving forward with its remediation plan.

Mayor Copeland, who has yet to reveal his plans for redeveloping the West Calumet housing complex, sent a letter to residents about the soil’s hazardous lead levels.

Joshua Lott/Getty Image

“On every level of government, from city to federal, no one has really bothered to let us, the residents, who are living in this…be involved and have any say,” says Lopez, who helped form East Chicago’s community advisory group (CAG). A CAG is a platform for citizens to voice their concerns and an official part of every Superfund cleanup. But Lopez says she and her neighbors didn’t know they were supposed to form one until last fall.

Communication problems persist between government agencies and the community, says Debbie Chizewer, who works at the Environmental Advocacy Clinic at Northwestern University’s School of Law and helps East Chicagoans navigate the legal system. For instance, she says the state holds events to test kids’ blood lead levels, but many people don’t know about them.

One thing that could help bridge that divide is a memorandum of understanding that was struck at the end of the Obama administration between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the EPA. The agreement, which should continue through the Trump administration, states that the two agencies would share information and figure out how to address federally subsidized housing on Superfund sites. Again, how the agencies will execute this, or if they will at all under Trump, is a mystery.

Today, fewer than 10 families remain at the complex, and some of those who legally challenged their relocation were given additional time by a law judge. The 1,000-plus others have all left—some uprooted out of state due to limited housing availability.

West Calumet resident and CAG member Akeeshea Daniels was able to find a new home in East Chicago. She moved with two of her three sons to a three-bedroom house last month but is continuing to fight for her former and present neighbors.

“This is where I was born and where I was raised and where I’m comfortable,” she says. “I don’t want another mother going through what I went through.” Daniels was one of the first to speak out about the contamination after her kids began suffering from unusual illnesses like scarlet fever and rashes that made their skin “shed like a snake.”

“I’m in awe of these residents,” says Northwestern University’s Chizewer. “There are people who have cancer, who have other chronic diseases, potentially as the result of their environment where they’re living, and they’re coming to meetings multiple times a week, making phone calls, writing letters. It’s remarkable. And they’re just getting started.”

But it’s been a long struggle, say Lopez and Daniels. They and their neighbors often get together to vent and to cry. “One odd thing that’s come out of this is we have become a family,” says Lopez. Like Daniels, she wants to make sure others know how to get informed about industrial threats in their communities—and then demand the government does something about them, and quickly. 

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