Gary Crusader staff report
A House committee in the Indiana Legislature approved a bill that would direct state agencies to work closely with their federal counterparts to address the needs and concerns of residents living in the lead contaminated West Calumet Housing Complex and in other areas of East Chicago.
The move came during a special hearing on Wednesday, February 8 about the crisis in the complex, where hundreds of residents remain stuck in the complex with no place to go. The hearing was held by the House Environmental Affairs Committee, who heard testimonies from a dozen East Chicago residents, including Mayor Anthony Copeland. All of them voiced their support for the proposed legislation.
House Bill 1344, sponsored by state Rep. Earl Harris, Jr., D-East Chicago, designates the West Calumet Housing Complex, other homes built on the sites of past lead manufacturing operations and the city’s Superfund properties as an “area of special concern” for the state.
The committee voted unanimously to advance the legislation to the full House, which next week likely will consider possible changes before deciding whether to send it to the Indiana Senate.
“This is not a short-term problem. I wish it were. I wish it was something we could get rectified in the next week,” Harris said. “But the reality is it is going to take a lot more time, it’s going to take funding and it’s going to take a lot of help from people.”
The bill may be the biggest move the state has taken after it faced months of criticism from community leaders and residents. Many accuse lawmakers of not doing enough for residents who have been in limbo since the crisis exploded in July with the announcement that high deposits of lead were found in the soil underneath the West Calumet Housing Complex.
House Bill 1344 encourages the state departments of environmental management and public health, as well as the attorney general to assist the federal government, to whatever extent possible, with soil remediation and resident moving costs.
The proposal also requires the state to conduct independent lead and arsenic testing of the soil and water in the area of special concern at least once a year.
Many East Chicago residents shared how living in a lead-contaminated neighborhood has affected their health, their children’s health and educational attainment. They also complained that the crisis caused a drop in property values. Many who testified also urged lawmakers to go further than the proposed legislation by funding citywide lead testing, providing money for residential water filtration and paying to replace the city’s lead water pipes.
“I’m hoping, I’m praying, that this bill is passed so the testing we need to make our city great is done citywide,” said Tara Adams, a West Calumet resident who described struggling to find a new place to live.