EPA head visits contaminated community as his agency plans to cut key program

Lawmakers support employees’ bid to keep Chicago office open.

Residents of East Chicago, Indiana and their supporters rally near a public-housing complex on April 19, 2017, ahead of a visit by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. CREDIT: AP Photo/Teresa Crawford
Residents of East Chicago, Indiana and their supporters rally near a public-housing complex on April 19, 2017, ahead of a visit by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. CREDIT: AP Photo/Teresa Crawford

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt entered the fire during his Wednesday visit to the Chicago region as he sought to calm anger over proposed EPA budget cuts, including the defunding of the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice, and how those cuts would affect clean-up efforts at a Superfund site in East Chicago, Indiana.

During a news briefing in East Chicago, where he was flanked by several officials, including Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) and East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland (D), Pruitt emphasized that local, state and federal officials are coming to together to address the contamination issue in the city.

“Please know that it’s the EPA’s objective, my objective as the administrator of the EPA, to come in and make sure that people’s health is protected here in East Chicago and that they can have confidence that their land, their health is going to be secure for the long term,” Pruitt said. “We’re committed to doing that, doing it in an efficient and effective way so we can get back and see progress in this community.”

After making his statement, Pruitt was asked if the agency planned to close its Region 5 office in Chicago, a short drive from East Chicago, as part of the Trump administration’s plans to cut the EPA’s budget by more than 30 percent; he walked away without answering the question, according to reports from the event.

At a press conference in Chicago on Wednesday, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, a union that represents employees in the EPA Region 5 office, called on Pruitt not to close the office. U.S. Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi and Jan Schakowsky, both Illinois Democrats, joined employees at the press conference to emphasize their support for the union’s fight to keep the office open.

The Sierra Club said Wednesday that employees at the EPA Region 5 headquarters in Chicago were “stood up by Pruitt, in spite of their invitation for their own boss to have lunch with them.”

If Pruitt had chosen to visit agency employees in Chicago, he “could learn a lot about the great work EPA has done in our region to clean up the Great Lakes, improve our air quality, encourage clean energy, and create good jobs in clean technologies, and how President Trump’s policies and budget proposal threaten to decimate the EPA and the communities here who depend on it,” Illinois Sierra Club Director Jack Darin said in a statement.

Earlier in the day, Pruitt declined an invitation to attend a roundtable discussion, organized by the NAACP, on the environmental crisis facing residents of the Calumet and West Calumet communities of East Chicago.

The EPA administrator reportedly toured the lead-contaminated areas of the city by car and then attended a meeting later in the day with state and local officials at the city’s Carrie Gosch Elementary School. The school was closed in 2016 due to high levels of lead on school grounds and is located near the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, which is scheduled for demolition.

The lead-and-arsenic contaminated 346-unit housing complex was built in the early 1970s on the footprint of a former lead smelter. The city’s mayor reportedly wants the EPA to return the land to residential status, which would allow the city to develop the land into anything it wished.

In February, Holcomb declared East Chicago a disaster area due to dangerous environmental issues emerging from the USS Lead Superfund site. Vice President Mike Pence refused to designate the city a disaster area while he was governor of Indiana.

“African Americans serve as the canaries in the mine, yet today we are seeing that those mines exist in our communities where toxic poisons are ignored, only because they have yet to reach the rest of America,” NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks said in a statement issued Tuesday.

The NAACP released a set of demands on Wednesday that included an expedited groundwater study at the Superfund site and a commitment to obtain community input in the decision-making process. The NAACP also called on Pruitt to keep the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice open.

“All attempts to defund EPA’s EJ program should not only be stopped, but support for this long-underfunded program must be exponentially increased” to avoid future cases of toxic contamination similar to what occurred in East Chicago, Flint, Michigan, and Eight Mile, Alabama, the NAACP said in its list of demands.

In a blog post, Meleah Geertsman, a senior attorney in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Midwest program, wrote that “Pruitt has a critical opportunity to make good on his confirmation statement — that EPA should have ‘acted faster’ in Flint — by stepping in to ensure that residents throughout East Chicago have reliable access to drinking water that is not contaminated by lead.”

Geertsman explained East Chicago and the state of Indiana have a poor history with treating the city’s drinking water for lead. “Ultimately, city residents — including but not limited to Superfund site residents — need full replacement of their lead service lines at no or greatly reduced cost to them,” she wrote.