East Chicago lead crisis highlights risk of proposed EPA cuts

“I thought we had regulations in place to protect us from pollution like this.”

East Chicago. CREDIT: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District
East Chicago. CREDIT: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District

East Chicago resident Sara Jimenez, 59, remembers the moment she stopped feeling safe in her home. In July, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent her a letter that said the soil in her front and back yards contained high concentrations of lead and arsenic. Officials from the EPA had taken soil samples more than a year previously, but Jimenez hadn’t heard from them since.

“I was angry and confused,” Jimenez said. “I thought we had regulations in place to protect us from pollution like this.”

Jimenez lives in East Chicago about a mile from the USS Lead smelting facility, now an EPA Superfund site. Lead pollution has endangered families, slashed property values and forced some residents to evacuate their homes. Locals have criticized the EPA for not addressing the problem sooner, and they are worried about President Trump’s proposed cuts to the agency’s budget.

The USS Lead Superfund site. CREDIT: Environmental Protection Agency
The USS Lead Superfund site. CREDIT: Environmental Protection Agency

“When my husband and I bought our home in 1999, we were not told that the soil was contaminated,” Jimenez said. In the years since, Jimenez and her husband have invested tens of thousands of dollars into home improvements. Jimenez said that, based on data from the county assessor, the value of their home dropped in half after the area was labeled a Superfund site in 2009. Her home is one of 120 the EPA named for a round of cleanups this spring.

“I get so angry. You know your dream is you buy a house, and if you want to sell it, you want to know you can sell it with at least the value you put into it,” said Jimenez. “We put a patio on the back. We invested in a new roof. My husband worked hard for so many years. Now we have nothing. Nothing.”

Since finding lead and arsenic concentrations in the soil, EPA officials have has gone door to door warning children not to play in the dirt. Some 20 percent of children under the age of seven living in the western part of the Superfund site had high levels of lead in their blood.

EPA workers collect soil samples. CREDIT: Environmental Protection Agency
EPA workers collect soil samples. CREDIT: Environmental Protection Agency

Closer to the smelting facility, lead contamination is especially severe. Authorities plan to demolish the West Calumet Housing Complex, which was built on top of a former lead smelting plant. West Calumet is home to more than 1,100 people, mostly children. The East Chicago Housing Authority hopes to relocate the remaining families to temporary housing this week, despite residents’ requests to stay until the end of the school year.

Government officials have known about the risks associated with the USS Lead Superfund site for decades. In 1985, the EPA sampled soil around the USS Lead facility after the Indiana Health Department found 53 children in West Calumet with elevated levels of lead in their blood.

But officials only took one soil sample at the northwest corner of the West Calumet Housing Complex, the point farthest from the USS Lead facility. The sample registered a concentration of lead below the EPA’s limit. Federal officials did not sample the soil in the housing complex again for more than two decades.

EPA staff speak to residents of the Superfund site. CREDIT: Environmental Protection Agency
EPA staff speak to residents of the Superfund site. CREDIT: Environmental Protection Agency

It wasn’t until 2009 that the site was officially added to the Superfund list, leading to more comprehensive cleanup and testing — and the discovery of new risks.

In the course of testing drinking water at the Superfund site, officials found that lead from pipes had contaminated the water. In January, the EPA announced that as many as 90 percent of the homes in East Chicago could have lead water lines. The EPA recommends residents assume their lines are contaminated and use certified filters.

Research shows that there is no safe level of lead in the blood. Exposure to even small amounts of lead can cause irreversible brain damage, leading to lower IQ. The risks are especially high for children and pregnant women. Miscarriage, behavioral abnormalities and cancer have all been linked to lead or arsenic exposure.

“My mother has had several miscarriages,” said Alexandra Watkins, 31, a psychology student at Purdue University Northwest who grew up near the smelting facility. “My sister has some emotional problems. Lots of people have died of cancer. I’ve always been looking to understand why.”

Alexandra Watkins. CREDIT: Alexandra Watkins
Alexandra Watkins. CREDIT: Alexandra Watkins

Meanwhile, as East Chicago faces an environmental disaster, the EPA faces drastic cuts to programs that protect communities from toxic waste. Trump’s proposed budget includes a 42 percent cut to the cleanup of industrial pollution and a 23 percent cut to enforcement.

“States don’t have the funding to do testing or move people,” said Watkins. “It’s very scary to think budget cuts could leave this up to the states, and the EPA could be removed entirely.”

The proposed cuts threaten to further erode trust in the agency. “The EPA permitted the pollution that led to this crisis under their existing authority,” said local artist and activist Frank Thomas. “A weaker EPA is not the solution.”

Garrett Blad writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him at @gblad.