In response to the drinking water crisis in East Chicago, Indiana, a coalition of local citizens, environmental law clinics, state, and national groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on March 7, to take emergency action to secure safe, clean water for the city’s residents. Problems with lead contamination in the soil thrust East Chicago into the national spotlight in 2016. The discovery of lead contamination in the city’s drinking water threatens increased, cumulative lead impacts on an already overburdened community.
“The disastrous effects of lead in our soil have already taken a toll on our community—but lead coming through our taps takes this mess to a whole new, unacceptably horrible level. We live in America; we should not be left drinking poison while officials ponder away at long-term solutions. If the city and state cannot help us quickly, it is time for the federal government to help its citizens,” said Sherry Hunter, an East Chicago resident.
In September 2016, a Reuters investigation found elevated blood levels in children living in the vicinity of the Superfund site and, more broadly, in East Chicago. That fall, the EPA conducted a drinking water pilot study at the Superfund site, concluding that the data showed a “system-wide” problem in the drinking water for this city of 29,000.
Similar to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, inadequate corrosion control chemicals and the existence of lead service lines resulted in elevated levels of lead in drinking water. On December 1, 2016, before the EPA study findings were released to the public, the City of East Chicago sought a declaration of emergency from then-Governor Mike Pence before he left office to serve as Vice President of the United States. Pence’s office rejected the city’s request.
Since then, the City of East Chicago and the State of Indiana have begun implementing long term measures to address the water contamination—including action from new Governor Eric Holcomb—but these efforts have not yet secured a safe source of drinking water for residents.
Among a series of requests to protect the health of residents, the petition urges that the EPA immediately order the city and state to provide East Chicagoans with an alternative, free source of safe drinking water, such as water filters or bottled water.
“Nobody should be forced to endure contaminated drinking water, a basic need of every American. But the damage is even more acute here, as East Chicagoans have shouldered the weight of legacy contamination in the soil and air for decades from polluting facilities around their city. The EPA must act to protect the community’s health until effective long-term fixes are in place,” said Anjali Waikar, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The petition comes in the same week the Trump administration announced massive staff and budget cuts at the EPA that could impact the Agency’s ability to enforce public protections like those needed in East Chicago.
New EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has also signaled a potential reduction in enforcement actions, but both he and President Trump have made clear that situations like the one emerging in East Chicago and the water crisis in Flint require federal attention. In his confirmation hearings, Pruitt stated: “[T]he Flint tragedy was a failure at every level of government,” noting his personal disturbance that the “EPA did not take action until long after they became aware of the elevated lead levels in Flint drinking water.” Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump responded to the Flint water crisis on the campaign trail, saying, “I think it’s a horror show that it was allowed to happen and … it should have never, ever been allowed to happen. That was really the problem.”
There is no safe level of lead exposure. The toxic effects of lead on virtually every system in the body, and particularly on the developing brains of young children, are well documented. Lead can also contribute to high blood pressure and other health problems in adults. Even low levels of lead in the blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement, effects that are irreversible.