Residents of the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Ind., recently learned that much of the soil outside their homes contains staggering levels of lead, one of the worst threats to children’s health. The levels are so high that community involvement coordinators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have gone door-to-door warning residents not to allow children to play in the dirt and providing information about ways to prevent exposure to lead in soil.
Mayor Anthony Copeland of East Chicago announced in August that the residents would have to move out, and that the complex would be demolished. He also announced plans to close the nearby elementary school. The news affects about 1,100 poor, largely black residents of West Calumet, including 670 children, who are scrambling to find a new home.
The housing complex, built in 1972 and run by the East Chicago Housing Authority, is located just north of a huge former U.S.S. Lead smelting plant and on top of a smaller former smelting operation. The area was designated a Superfund site in 2009.
Residents are now asking why neither the state nor the EPA told them just how toxic their soil was much sooner, and a timeline is emerging that suggests a painfully slow government process of confronting the problem. Records indicate the EPA has planned since 2012 to remove the contaminated soil without displacing residents.
Despite this, residents were not informed until last month that even the top six inches of soil in their yards had up to 30 times more lead than the level considered safe for children to play in, and that it also had hazardous levels of arsenic. Farther down, the contamination is much worse.
Robert A. Kaplan, the EPA’s acting regional administrator for the Great Lakes region, said the EPA had in fact warned West Calumet residents for at least a decade to avoid the soil, with public notices and community meetings. Mr. Kaplan said the hot spots discovered during preliminary testing had not created a sense of urgency partly because a 2011 federal assessment of the Superfund site concluded that “breathing the air, drinking tap water or playing in soil” in the area “is not expected to harm people’s health.”
Extensive testing to figure out which soil needed to be removed did not begin until November 2014, according to Administrator Kaplan. The EPA did not receive the final results showing “exactly where” the contamination was, he said, until this May. The delay, Kaplan said, was due to problems with the contractor the agency hired to tabulate the data and concerns about the data’s quality.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has provided the East Chicago Housing Authority with $1.9 million to help residents pay for new rentals in the city or anywhere in the country, starting next month. But many questions remain, including whether the city, state or federal government will cover residents’ moving expenses and security deposits and whether they will be able to find safe, affordable housing with the amounts they receive.
A housing discrimination complaint has been filed by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago that says the East Chicago Housing Authority’s plan for relocating residents violates federal civil rights laws.
Jennifer O’Malley, a spokeswoman for the Indiana State Department of Health, said that since early July, 474 residents of the housing complex and surrounding neighborhoods had been screened for lead and that 29, including 19 children younger than 8, had elevated levels in their blood. But a July 14 letter to the EPA indicated preliminary tests had found that “hundreds of children suffer from excessive levels of lead in their blood.”
Sources: EPA and The Northwest (Indiana) Times
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