Last December, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland wrote a letter pleading with then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to grant his city, which is facing a lead contamination crisis, an emergency declaration to allow it to address the problem.
Pence said no, suggesting the $200,000 in assistance the state had already offered to help the city relocate affected families and administer free lead testing would suffice.
Pence’s successor, fellow Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, disagreed. Last week, in one of his first executive orders in office, he issued a declaration of disaster emergency that paved the way for additional state and potentially federal assistance for the struggling city and tasked Copeland with providing a written assessment of what resources the city will need to help its residents by March 5.
Deborah Chizewer, a law fellow at Northwestern University’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic who has been assisting East Chicago residents affected by the toxic, lead-contaminated soil, said Holcomb’s action was a welcome change from Pence’s response to the crisis.
“I was obviously very disappointed that Pence didn’t give this situation the requisite level of attention,” Chizewer told The Huffington Post. “I don’t think the state has done enough, but I was very pleased to see that Holcomb recognized the urgency in East Chicago that remains.”
The situation in East Chicago dates back at least to 1972, when the West Calumet housing complex was built on the site of a former lead refinery.
Concerns about lead in the soil in the area began around 1991, when the state first began testing East Chicago children for lead exposure. It wasn’t until 2009 that a 322-acre area, including the complex, was declared a Superfund site. Testing of the area’s soil first confirmed to residents last year that it was contaminated with both lead and arsenic.
Cleanup of lead-contaminated homes in the predominantly low-income, minority-populated city began last summer. Section 8 housing vouchers for residents affected by the city’s plan to demolish the complex were distributed shortly thereafter, but many residents have struggled to find alternative housing using those vouchers. According to CBS Chicago, some 157 families of 332 living in the complex have yet to relocate as of this month.
The city’s lead crisis was the subject of a longform HuffPost video, titled “Dear Mike Pence,” released last December.
In the piece, East Chicago residents living inside the Superfund site’s three impacted zones express frustration that it took health officials so long to make them aware of the dangers of lead in their community.
One East Chicago resident, Mauro Jimenez, described to video producer Matthew Perkins how the EPA visited his family’s house about six years earlier.
“They came here and took samples out of my yard,” Jimenez told Perkins. “They never did say for what. They never sent it to me. They sent it to me this year, giving me the numbers of lead and arsenic too. Why did they hold that information from us?”
Jimenez, along with his wife Sara, is a homeowner essentially trapped in the affected area, unable to sell his home due to the lead.
“In good conscience, because they had small children, I couldn’t even sell them the house because we’re all contaminated here,” Sara told Perkins.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said no blood lead level in children should be considered safe. Exposure to lead has been linked with developmental delays, learning difficulties and other problems.
Since the HuffPost piece was filmed, advocates for the residents say the situation has gotten more serious. The Environmental Protection Agency discovered elevated lead levels in the drinking water of 40 percent of area homes that were recently tested. The EPA advised residents to use water filters.
That’s also the advice that Marc Edwards, a whistleblower in the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, offered for residents of the Indiana city. Edwards told HuffPost the city should also recommend that residents living in homes with lead pipes switch to bottled water, implement lead-corrosion control strategies and remind children to wash their hands to reduce their exposure to lead dust and soil.
A city spokesman did not respond to a request for information concerning the city’s action plan on lead. An Indiana Department of Environmental Management pointed only to the text of last week’s emergency declaration in response to a request for additional comment.
For her part, Chizewer hopes the state may move to provide water filters to residents to help them reduce their exposure to lead, a problem she admits will not be an easy or cheap fix.
The ongoing crisis in Flint, to which some have likened East Chicago’s troubles, is evidence, she says, of just that.
“It can’t be fixed overnight,” Chizewer said. “This is a cleanup of hundreds of properties. It’s going to take years, but I hope there is a concerted effort to clean the properties up as quickly as possible.”
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.