Gary Crusader staff report
Hundreds of Black residents in East Chicago are still in limbo after extremely high levels of lead have been detected in a public housing development. While many poor tenants have no place to go, others remain worried after learning their children have dangerous levels of lead in their bodies.
Now, East Chicago officials are trying to keep the city calm and avoid the backlash Flint, Michigan officials received during their city’s lead crisis in 2015.
It’s a problem one attorney said has been known for a long time and federal, state and even city officials did nothing about it. And a recent investigative story by Reuters news agency said a flawed report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is leaving children vulnerable by saying they were not at risk when they really were.
The problem has residents angry and an attorney preparing to take legal action on behalf of numerous families that are being forced to move out of the West Calumet Housing Complex, a 44-year-old development that has 346 units. The complex was built on the site of the defunct former Lead Product smelting operation.
The company closed some 33 years ago, but it left high deposits of lead in the soil. As it turned out, the grounds were never cleaned up and for decades children who played outside were at risk. Some ended up poisoned by the contamination and their parents went years without knowing it. A new elementary school at West Calumet Housing Complex was built on the contaminated grounds.
The high levels of lead were finally detected last May when Robert Kaplan, an official with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), took several samples of the soil and detected the elevated lead levels. He told NBC news that letters were sent to everyone when the findings were released.
Tenants of the West Calumet Housing Complex were notified of the high lead levels in July when the city’s mayor, Anthony Copeland, told them that their complex would be demolished and they would be relocated to safer neighborhoods. But as residents began searching for safer places to live, the EPA began laying down mulch over bare soil as a barrier against the lead.
The East Chicago Housing Authority gave out $1.9 million in federal housing vouchers to residents, and told them they had 60 to 120 days to move, depending on extensions. But many say they can’t do it that fast without more resources.
On Wednesday, September 28, a new bill in Congress would fast-track new affordable housing development in East Chicago.
The bill, from U.S. Rep. Todd Young (R-Ind.), aims to help more than 300 families who must move out of West Calumet within two months.
East Chicago residents have criticized Governor Mike Pence, saying he has not visited the city since the discovery was made. Democratic Gubernatorial candidate John Gregg has visited East Chicago during a community meeting August 31 at the First Baptist Church in East Chicago. His opponent, Lt. Governor Eric Holcomb has yet to do the same.
In response to the discovery, Indiana Governor Mike Pence dispatched some staffers to East Chicago to investigate the situation. Through a spokesman, Pence has promised financial and medical assistance to the hundreds of displaced families, but so far residents haven’t seen any help.
Some community leaders believe that East Chicago is on the verge of becoming the next catastrophe after Flint, Michigan.
Like Flint, many believe the lead problem was poorly handled and could have been avoided. In an investigative report by Reuters, the news agency published a story that said a flawed report by the Center of Disease Control in 2011 left children vulnerable to high levels of lead in the soil. The CDC report said the soil was safe when it really wasn’t.
“Breathing the air, drinking tap water or playing in soil in neighborhoods near the USS Lead Site is not expected to harm people’s health,” according to the CDC report in the Reuters’ story.
Reuters said the report was built on “flawed or incomplete data. The news agency also said the CDC report made a wrong assumption that residents weren’t at risk and that many of the report’s key findings were unfounded and misleading.
A Reuters analysis found that 22 percent of children tested at the West Calumet Complex had elevated lead levels. That’s many times higher than the national rate. Nearly a third of the complex’s residents are children. The levels were so high, EPA officials advised parents to not allow their children to play outdoors.
Barry Rooth, an attorney representing numerous families at the West Calumet Complex, said federal, state and city officials knew for years that residents were living in unsafe conditions.
Rooth said 85 of the children he represents have been diagnosed with unsafe lead levels. One child, 3-year-old Josiah King, has worrisome levels of lead in his blood, according to one report in the New York Times. His mother, Stephanie King sweeps and mops her unit with bleach twice a day to remove any traces of soil her children brings in the house.
“If I’d have known the dirt had lead, he wouldn’t have been out there playing in it,” Ms. King, 35, told the newspaper.