For the first stop on his “back-to-basics” campaign tour — focused on rolling back environmental protections — EPA head Scott Pruitt chose a small Indiana town plagued by toxic levels of lead and arsenic.
On Wednesday, Pruitt toured the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago, Ind., listed as one of the nation’s most contaminated in 2009, and promised city leaders and residents that they had the full support of his agency.
“The reason I’m here is because it’s important that we restore confidence to the people here in this community that we’re going to get it right,” Pruitt told reporters in a 90-second statement at a news conference.
But he left the podium without taking any questions, and refused to address a rumor that the EPA’s Region 5, which contains both East Chicago and Flint, Mich., could be on the federal government’s funding chopping block.
And when a group of 100 protesters marched to the elementary school where Pruitt was speaking, carrying signs that said “PRUITT-GET2IT” and “WATER IS A HUMAN RIGHT,” police blocked them from the property.
For nearly a year now, community leaders and residents in East Chicago, a predominantly black and Hispanic town of 29,000 people, have been fleeing the land they once considered home after tests showed dangerous levels of lead and arsenic had contaminated their soil and drinking water.
The crisis, though, has centered on the West Calumet public housing complex.
The homes there were built where a smelting facility operated for most of the 20th century. It turned refined copper and lead into batteries — and spewed dark, toxic dust across the land.
In 2009, decades after the factories closed, the EPA designated the area a priority cleanup site. Several years later, tests showed alarmingly high levels of lead, and a plan was made to haul away tons of contaminated soil.
But those plans stalled, and little was done until May 2016, nearly eight years after the first official red flag.
That month, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland received test results from the EPA with elevated numbers his office claims he had never seen before.
Soon, signs posted across the complex warned parents to keep their children out of the dirt and wash all their outdoor toys. By the end of July, the Housing Authority announced that the land was so toxic the entire 346-unit complex had to be demolished — leaving 1,000 people, including 600 children, without homes.
“Somebody dropped the ball somewhere,” state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, an East Chicago resident, told the Associated Press at the time. “Maybe it was intentional, or maybe by mistake. Maybe it was negligence.”
A nearby elementary school was shuttered weeks before the school year began and the EPA set up office space inside.
Then the EPA notified state officials it had detected high levels of lead in 18 of 43 homes tested in East Chicago, reported the Times of Northwest Indiana. The lead in the water was unrelated to the lead in the soil, the local newspaper reported, but residents exposed to both could face extreme health risks.
Up to 90 percent of the city’s water lines could be composed of lead pipes, according to the Times, and the EPA advised all residents to assume their water is contaminated and use a certified filter.
“We can’t drink the waters. The land we walk upon is contaminated. And the air we breathe is contaminated,” Thomas Frank, one of five East Chicago residents selected to meet privately with Pruitt, told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Rally organizers called for more water testing, expedited clean-up of the contaminated sites and lifelong health care for those exposed to the toxic soil and water, reported the Sun-Times.
“We are here in the West Calumet complex because injustice is here in East Chicago,” the Rev. Cheryl Rivera said during the rally Wednesday. “We are here because environmental racism is here. We are here because climate injustice is here. We are here because thousands of families’ lives are at risk.”
The EPA this week began cleaning up homes in the Superfund site, which includes three separate zones, the public housing complex, the school and private residences.
Last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other advocacy organizations petitioned the federal agency to give all residents of East Chicago — not just those in the Superfund site — water filters and bottled water, reported the Chicago Tribune, a request that is still being reviewed by EPA officials.
“Up to now, it’s only been voluntary measures to try to get filters and bottled water to folks. When we filed the petition, the intent was to light a fire under the city,” Meleah Geertsma, a Midwest-based senior attorney at the NRDC, told the environmental publication E&E News before Pruitt’s visit. “Our main point is that the residents of East Chicago are being bombarded by lead in all directions.”
In a news release, the EPA outlined actions it has already taken and will take this year, including giving East Chicago $16.5 million in federal State Revolving Fund money for drinking water infrastructure upgrades. The agency already handed out filters and bottled water to residents of some Superfund properties and will give water filters to all residents in zones 2 and 3 this year.
Cleanup work will resume in some areas now that the EPA got several “potentially responsible parties” to fund the work at an estimated $16 million, the release said. The agency will remove contaminated soil from at estimated 73 “high priority” properties and clean up the yards in an additional 120 properties.
Skeptics, though, are concerned that President Trump’s proposed 31 percent EPA budget cut — which includes shrinking the Superfund clean-up program from over $1 billion to $762 million — could devastate those plans, especially if the Region 5 offices are trimmed back or cut altogether.
That rumor was reported by a Chicago Sun-Times columnist last week, citing an unnamed “city source.” The source, the columnist wrote, said the Chicago-based office would be consolidated with one in Kansas. The region director has since denied the allegations, but when asked about it after the news conference Wednesday, Pruitt said nothing.
Frank told Chicago Tonight that during his private meeting with Pruitt, the EPA chief “categorically denied that they had any plans” to close the Region 5 offices.
Officials say two dozen families remain at the 45-year-old West Calumet housing complex. Those who already evacuated have been forced to live across state lines or in neighborhoods plagued by gang violence.
Mike Pence, Indiana’s former governor and the current vice president, declined to declare a state of emergency in East Chicago. Newly elected Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb did earlier this year.
Local leaders have praised members of Indiana’s congressional delegation, including Sens. Joe Donnelly (D) and Todd C. Young (R) along with Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D), for putting East Chicago on the radar of federal officials.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has pledged a visit of his own, though he has not said when it will occur.
“Maybe we’re a poor community,” April Friendly, with the community strategy group, told WGN. “It doesn’t mean we can’t be a heard community.”
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