By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader
Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb visited East Chicago on February 17, trying to salvage whatever trust in government is left, nearly eight months after his predecessor ignored the pleas of residents living in areas with high levels of lead contamination.
Holcomb, who was elected governor last November, spoke with residents of the complex and other parts of East Chicago during his visit, hoping to restore trust after former governor Mike Pence declined requests to come to the city last December. Holcomb later met with East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland and community leaders, who listened as the governor outlined steps from his Emergency Disaster Declaration, which he announced February 9.
“We had a very positive and productive meeting today,” Holcomb said. This is my first visit, but it’s not my last.”
Mayor Copeland described Holcomb’s visit as “the first step toward restoring public trust. I think the people thought no one was listening and that he would never come. I think that reflects hope,” he said.
The Declaration would provide 30 days of enhanced state assistance in relocating the 86 families that remain in limbo at the West Calumet Complex. The order also authorizes state agencies to coordinate efforts with federal officials and petition for grant money that could be used to replace lead pipes.
Money remains a big concern as East Chicago officials seek to demolish the West Calumet Complex, a 322-acre site that is one of three residential cleanup zones in East Chicago. In some areas of the complex lead levels were 200 times higher than the limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
For most of the 1,000 residents at the West Calumet Complex who have already been relocated, Holcomb’s Emergency Disaster Declaration came too late. East Chicago housing officials aim to have the 86 families who remain in the complex out by March 31. Copeland said the remaining families would be relocated to public housing units that the city is currently rehabbing in the North Harbor area.
Holcomb’s visit marked the first time a high-ranking state official has come to East Chicago since residents learned their lives were in danger, nearly eight months ago. Former Governor Mike Pence left office without visiting, or assisting East Chicago’s residents in finding a safer place to stay.
The lead crisis sparked heavy criticism toward the state’s Republican lawmakers, who have been accused of doing little to help the hundreds of families in East Chicago living at the West Calumet Complex.
Holcomb’s disaster declaration will help in the relocation. In news reports, Holcomb said he would evaluate the situation at the end of the 30 days of enhanced state assistance to determine whether an extension is necessary.