East Chicago Residents Forced from Their Homes Due to Lead-Contaminated Land; EPA Drags Feet On Clean-Up Efforts

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The EPA is still working to clear the West Camulet Complex site of toxic materials. (Photo by John J. Watkins / AP)

Residents of an East Chicago, Ind., public housing complex have just 60 days to find new homes after being directed to evacuate the property due to dangerous levels of lead and arsenic in the soil.

Like most families staying at the West Calumet Complex, resident Carmencita Robinson said she had no idea she had been living on contaminated land for the past decade until she received a letter in the mail last July telling her she needed to move.

“I felt betrayed,” Robinson told The Atlantic. “They knew that there was lead, and they misled the families that were there because they continuously accepted our rent and gave us no notice of lead.

“I felt like I was just pushed out of some place that I took a lot of pride in,” she continued, noting how she had planned to grow old in her apartment. “Nobody said, ‘We apologize for putting you all through this,’ or ‘I am sorry that this has to be done that way.’ No remorse, no anything. … I could have lost my life there. My kids could have gotten sicker there. How can you do people like that?”

In a letter from city Mayor Anthony Copeland, West Calumet residents were told they would receive Section 8 housing vouchers, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and were given less than three months to secure new housing. The residents also were notified that the complex would be torn down.

Robinson was just one of thousands of residents whose homes sat smack-dab atop the USS Lead Superfund Site, which is part of the former USS Lead facility where a demolished lead smelter and an old metal-processing plant were never properly cleared away, according to The Atlantic. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website notes that the USS Lead site was listed on the National Priorities List of the worst contaminated sites in the country in 2009.

The case of the soon-to-be-demolished Indiana complex isn’t unique, however.

The Atlantic pointed to research dating back decades that showed how landfills, waste sites and other hazardous industrial facilities are disproportionately located in low-income, Black and Latino communities. The ongoing water contamination crisis in Flint, Mich., is the latest example of such environmental racism where nonwhite residents were denied healthy, safe living conditions. Residents of the West Camulet Complex are no different.

“This is a low-income community of color and officials chose to neglect this community, there’s no getting around it,” Debbie Chizewer, an attorney at Northwestern University’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic, told the publication.

With the USS Lead Superfund’s budget slowly dwindling over the years, clean-up efforts in the area have been painstakingly slow. Chizewer said after Indiana’s Department of Health gathered years of evidence showing elevated lead levels in children’s blood and residents’ homes, it recommended that the EPA step in and do something about it. Quick help failed to come, however, even as some areas of the site had lead levels as high as 91,000 parts per million of lead in the ground, and 32,000 ppm indoors, The Atlantic reported.

“I had to read up on lead and how that affects me and my children,” said Robinson, who is a mother of three. “There are just so many things that I look at now that I know that we had lead. I had no clue that it was just that bad.”

It wasn’t until October 2014 that the EPA agreed to begin clean-up efforts in East Chicago site. Three years later, the agency is still working to clear the area of toxic elements.

Early last month, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced a new directive aimed a prioritizing Superfund clean-ups and even established a special task force. President Donald Trump’s budget hopes to slash the program’s funds, however, leaving East Chicago residents doubtful that Pruitt’s efforts will be effective.

“When you think about this case and the number of impacted residents and the money that it takes to clean this up and then you look at the possibility of EPA not having funding to do this kind of work at this site or around the country, it’s extremely upsetting,” Chizewer said.

“We would continue to have cases like East Chicago for many decades to come.”

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