Akeeshea Daniels first suspected something was off when her two toddlers came down with scarlet fever. It was 2004, and she just moved her family into a spacious public housing complex in East Chicago, Indiana.
“I looked it up. Scarlet fever hasn’t been a problem since the ‘50s,” she said. “It was something straight out of a history book.”
But when she brought her concerns to the East Chicago Housing Authority — the manager of her public housing complex— she was brushed off.
“A Pandora’s Box has been opened. Why have they waited this long to tell us?”
“They told me it was my fault for not cleaning well enough,” she said. “I had toddlers! I was cleaning every day. And then things kept happening.”
The next decade was rife with mysterious family health issues: Ear infections, upper respiratory problems, throat infections. Her son was put on ADHD medication when he was seven. At any time, Daniels or one of her three children were sick with something they couldn’t kick. Just last month, Daniels took her now-18-year-old son to the emergency room for severe stomach cramps, and left with no better understanding of what was wrong.
It wasn’t until the last week of July that Daniels got her answer, in the form of two letters.
The first, sent by the Environmental Protection Agency, told her that the soil surrounding her home had been contaminated with toxic levels of arsenic and lead since at least 2014. The second, penned by East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland, informed Daniels that she and hundreds of fellow residents in the West Calumet Complex where she lives would be “temporarily relocated” due to the public health risk. The following day, the city posted a notice that the entire WCC complex was going to be demolished after tenants leave.
“Everyone is afraid. A Pandora’s Box has been opened. Where are they moving us? Who is paying for it? Are my children safe?” Daniels asked. “Why have they waited this long to tell us?”
As of yet, no public agency has been able to sufficiently answer these questions.
Perhaps it’s because they have to go back half a century to trace the start of this toxic contamination. For decades, the WCC, a neighboring elementary school, and some hundred private homes in Calumet neighborhood have all sat atop soil heavy with lead and arsenic.
Some environmental law experts say the national attention on Flint may have finally ignited action in East Chicago, where residents like Daniels finally learned the scope of the issues with their soil just two weeks ago. The EPA office responsible for East Chicago, Region 5, is the same one that oversaw Flint, Michigan’s contaminated water system.
But these are hardly the only communities with long-ignored contamination tucked into low-income neighborhoods.
The unfolding health emergency in East Chicago is a window into a larger environmental justice crisis playing out in neighborhoods across the country. And the historically minority, lower-income residents of the Calumet neighborhood will suffer the consequences.
“I am so sorry this has happened,” said Tia Cauley, director of the East Chicago Housing Authority, at the first neighborhood meeting after WCC occupants received their letters.
“But I am very happy for our residents that will benefit from this,” she went on. “So you’ll get a chance to have a better future.”
The audience didn’t seem convinced. The narrow room was packed with residents, many clinging to babies and toddlers, straining to hear the speakers. If exposed to lead at a young age, children can be left with severe brain damage, resulting in irreversible mental disorders, seizures, behavioral disorders like ADHD, and stunted educational growth.
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During a recent visit to the WCC grounds, EPA staffers put up signs telling residents not to let their children play in the dirt.
At the neighborhood meeting, Mayor Copeland promised housing vouchers and vouchers to cover moving expenses — though he didn’t indicate where or when they could be picked up, let alone where people might be able to find available low-income housing in the small town.
“It was as if the mayor was granting blessings on the residents, as if they weren’t required by law to give out housing vouchers,” said Thomas Frank, local environmental activist and historian.
“I can’t tell you about the sins of the past.”
Copeland ended the meeting with a disclaimer.
“This problem didn’t happen overnight. This complex was built in 1972 on top of this same lead. But the solution didn’t come until…you got Mayor Anthony Copeland who said ‘we will get the people out of harm’s way,’” he said. “I can’t tell you about the sins of the past.”
East Chicago has always been an industrial town. In fact, at the turn of the century, it was known as “the most industrialized municipality” in the country. Steel, petroleum, cement, lead, zinc, aluminum, tin — nearly every major industrial byproduct has been produced in the 11 square mile city.
In 1920, U.S.S. Lead set up shop along the town’s central Calumet River and began churning lead dust, arsenic, and other chemicals into the atmosphere. Around the same time, Anaconda Lead Products opened a few blocks north of U.S.S. Lead and did the same.
In 1973, U.S.S. Lead began dismantling car batteries to recover lead parts. Discarded materials saturated the soil with battery acid. Anaconda Lead has a shorter legacy — after shutting down in 1936, the factory’s buildings were demolished and cleared, leaving only lead-rich soil in its wake.
And then the city replaced it with an expansive, 346-unit low-income public housing complex.
It wasn’t until U.S.S. Lead shuttered in 1985 that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management tested soil in surrounding areas for contaminants. Out of the 14 locations tested in Anaconda’s former property, six had soil with lead levels at 11,000 ppm. EPA’s maximum level for lead content in residential areas is 400 ppm.
In 1992, shortly after U.S.S. Lead declared bankruptcy, the EPA proposed the area be included on the Superfund National Priorities List — the EPA’s to-do list of toxic environmental areas in dire need of decontamination — but it was mysteriously rejected. After testing the soil directly on the WCC property again in 2009, and finding equally high levels of lead, the 74 acres of Calumet neighborhood were finally deemed a Superfund site.
The residents were the last to know. Some heard murmurs of neighbors having their yards tested, but the city said the EPA did not investigate beyond the nine areas tested for contamination in 2009.
“We were under the false assumption there was no problem.”
For years, the city and EPA hassled over the best way to clean up the contaminated site, and waited for the past owners of U.S.S. Lead’s property to settle on a federal lawsuit that would help fund the Superfund cleanup. No one informed residents of the dangerous lead levels.
This May, the EPA and HUD sat down with city officials to give them the most updated lead levels: 91,100 ppm — 228 times the EPA’s maximum permitted lead levels.
City Attorney Carla Morgan said that East Chicago was kept entirely in the dark on the lead levels until that sit-down in May. In multiple meetings, she said, she asked EPA officials for the data, but they refused.
“I have no idea why they waited so long to tell us,” she said. “We had been adding playground equipment to the complex, and asked them if it was safe to dig. They didn’t respond. We were under the false assumption there was no problem.”
Throughout the process, Morgan kept running into inconsistencies in federal agencies’ regulations for lead levels, which added to the confusion.
In one 2011 analysis of the area’s public health risk, the EPA noted that no children had dangerous levels of lead in their bloodstream. At the time, anything up to 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in a child’s blood was considered safe. But in 2012, new research convinced the Centers for Disease Control And Prevention to reconsider that threshold and deem any readings at 5 micrograms per deciliter or above to be unsafe.
“If there was one good thing to come out of Flint, I prayed that it would be a consistency in federal lead regulation. Keeping everything up to date,” she said. “Not doing that affects public health.”
After May, the city decided not to tell residents about the lead levels until they could secure tenant housing. Only after they were promised housing vouchers from HUD did they inform WCC tenants of the situation.
“I’ve lived here all my life, but I never heard this was a Superfund site until last week. What I want to know is: who’s responsible?”
Indiana’s HUD program, the Region 5 EPA office overseeing the Superfund site, and Gov. Mike Pence’s office did not return requests from ThinkProgress for comment.
Morgan said that although the city has yet to receive the housing vouchers, they are on their way. As to where they will be used, however, Morgan’s a little less confident.
“We don’t have 346 housing unit for them to move into, so we’re going to have to use the private market. We’ll work with everyone to find a place,” she said. “Our last resort is moving them into Harborside, the public housing building we just emptied. It’s pretty old.”
Harborside is located in North Harbor, a neighborhood that has been historically enemies with the Calumet neighborhood. The scar of gang warfare on the city has only just begun to heal after its peak in 2000. According to Frank, gang violence has decreased since Copeland took office in 2010, in part due to new low-income housing projects.
“It’s had a positive effect on the city. Things have mellowed out,” he said. “This could shake it all up again.”
Daniels, who has two teenage sons, said there’s no way she’d move to North Harbor.
“I can’t take my sons over there. It will start a war,” she said. Another mother told her that teenage boys from North Harbor are already posting threats to Calumet teens on Facebook. “They’re saying if we move our sons over, there will be a bloodbath.”
Few other options remain. Due to her long history with health problems, Daniels has to find a house that is handicap accessible. But she grew up in Calumet neighborhood, and her family lives under a mile away, so she feels that moving out of town is off the table.
“I’m lost. I’m really lost. I could be homeless for the first time in my life,” Daniels said. “And three months from now we’re going to be knee-deep in snow.”
In lieu of government action or apology, WCC residents have decided to take matters into their own hands.
“We’re calling ourselves the Calumet Lives Matter Committee,” said Indiana State Senator Lonnie Randolph (D), one of the community leaders organizing the frustrated residents in hopes of getting answers. The committee, already backed by the local Black Lives Matter group, National Nurses United, Northwestern University’s environmental law clinic, and several environmental justice groups, will hold its first meeting this week.
Randolph was born, raised, and now works in East Calumet, which makes this issue especially personal for him. He’s seen mayors indicted and sent to prison for fraud. He’s watched the city tear itself apart in gang warfare.
But this is different.
“Four decades of families have been made sick or ill because of this. And then they get a notice overnight that they have to move, that their home is going to be destroyed,” he said. “I’ve lived here all my life, but I never heard this was a Superfund site until last week. What I want to know is: who’s responsible?”
Other longtime residents are hoping for national attention, especially in a state led by the current GOP vice presidential nominee, Mike Pence.
“The detriment and damage speaks for itself. This is a national health crisis,” said Bishop Tavis Grant, pastor of the city’s Greater First Baptist Church, who raised his children in the WCC. “Unfortunately, when you have poor, uneducated, unemployed people of color, you have a normalcy that these lives don’t matter. We can’t let this continue.”
“The health and wellbeing of hundreds of families is at stake. And this is a city of families.”
Community members are gearing up for meetings next week, both with city officials and on their own. Grant particularly wants to ensure that the people moved out of WCC aren’t put into an environment that’s even less safe for them— like North Harbor, or another building with its own set of health hazards. In East Chicago, it’s almost impossible to find a residential area that’s not a stone’s throw from an industrial yard.
“The health and wellbeing of hundreds of families is at stake,” he said. “And this is a city of families.”
Despite not yet having a new home to move into, Daniels has already begun packing up her children’s rooms. The hardest part, she said, is explaining the situation to her kids.
“What am I supposed to tell them? They have friend and grandparents in this neighborhood, they don’t want to leave,” she said. “This has always been home. And now it’s toxic.”
Note: ThinkProgress is using these photos of East Chicago with permission from a source in the city who wishes to remain anonymous.