Chicago staff want a meeting with EPA head after leaked report targets their office for closure

In an Aug. 23, 2016, photo, the EPA warns residents in front of housing complex in East Chicago, Indiana, about soil tainted with industrial contaminants. CREDIT: AP Photo/Tae-Gyun Kim

Environmental Protection Agency employees in Chicago are asking Administrator Scott Pruitt to take the time to meet with them on Wednesday after he visits a nearby Superfund site across the border in northwest Indiana where the federal agency is working to address widespread lead contamination.

The employees want to discuss rumors that the Trump administration plans to close the Chicago Region 5 office. Reports surfaced last weekend that the Region 5 office would be one of two EPA regional offices closed to meet the administration’s budget-cutting goals for the agency.

Pruitt reportedly is expected to attend a Chicago Cubs baseball game rather than meet with employees from the office, which could be consolidated with the agency’s Region 7 office in Kansas. The identity of the other regional office targeted for closure has not been released or leaked.

If Pruitt opts to skip the baseball game, the union that represents the 1,000 employees in the EPA’s Region 5 office, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, would want to discuss what it describes as “devastating cuts he and the Trump administration have proposed.”

The EPA is publicly denying that the Chicago office is targeted for closure. Robert Kaplan, EPA’s acting regional administrator for the Region 5 office, wrote in an email to employees: “At this time, our discussions have not veered into the subject of an office closure. Anyone stating anything to the contrary is spreading false information.” The EPA provided a copy of the email from Kaplan, who is not a Trump political appointee, to ThinkProgress.

In a news release emailed Wednesday to ThinkProgress, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 thanked Pruitt for going to the USS Lead smelting facility in East Chicago, Indiana, now an EPA Superfund site. The union hopes Pruitt agrees to commit more resources to the lead cleanup effort there.

“EPA is focusing on getting results by improving environmental conditions and human health in places like East Chicago,” EPA spokesman JP Freire said in an emailed statement. “Rather than focus on politicized rumors, we are working with residents to make sure they and their families can live in a safe and healthy environment.”

The USS Lead facility operated in East Chicago from 1900 through 1985. After the facility closed, families across the street in the West Calumet housing complex and surrounding neighborhoods in East Chicago faced toxic lead contamination in their soil and their groundwater, which continues today. Local residents have suffered serious health problems from the contamination for decades.

EPA coordinator Brad Benning stands in front of an EPA office in East Chicago. CREDIT: AP Photo/Tae-Gyun Kim

Lead pollution has endangered families, slashed property values and forced some residents to evacuate their homes. Thomas Frank, a community organizer and member of the Community Strategy Group, has been working to help people, especially lower-income residents who live near the Superfund site, to get new housing and free healthcare for life.

“We’re glad that Pruitt is coming,” said Frank, who offers what he calls “toxic tours” of East Chicago. “We want to show him how these vulnerable populations have a received a high concentration of these contaminants from what I would call environmentally criminal industries.”

Trump’s proposed cuts to the nation’s Superfund program and the planned elimination of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, along with the expected closure of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, will do great harm to East Chicago’s efforts to clean up the community on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, Frank said.

Pruitt’s visit to the Superfund site in northwest Indiana will be positive only if it leads to a dramatic change in the administrator’s views on environmental protection, emphasized Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

“As it stands, what matters is not the photo ops or the visits. Is the EPA putting sufficient resources into protecting communities that have been under toxic threat for years?” Kharbanda said. “There’s a huge disparity between paying a visit to a community — which in and of itself is a good thing — and the absolutely devastating cuts that the Trump administration is proposing.”

Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Chicago-headquartered Environmental Law and Policy Center, criticized the Trump administration for considering shutting the EPA Region 5 office. “For Administrator Pruitt to be talking about closing down the EPA regional office in the third-largest city in the country, which oversees the largest freshwater body in the world, is tone-deaf and foolish,” he said.

The Midwest also has one of the largest concentrations of coal-fired power plants in the nation, which are regulated in part by the EPA and one of the largest number of Superfund sites that have not been cleaned up, Learner noted.

CREDIT: American Federation of Government Employees Local 704

American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 President Michael Mikulka said the union was sending Pruitt a formal invitation to join Region 5 EPA employees for lunch in Chicago. “Since Administrator Pruitt plans to visit the area, he must also come to the Chicago EPA headquarters. Hundreds of EPA employees work just a 30-minute drive from where he will be,” Mikulka said. “He should sit down with the EPA employees and answer their questions about how these cuts will impact their work, and the environment.” Pruitt has been the main proponent of the Trump administration’s proposed 31 percent across-the-board EPA cuts, the union said.

“From the soil contamination in East Chicago to the water contamination in Flint, our efforts need more resources — not less,” Mikulka said. “We hope Administrator Pruitt will accept our invitation. The stakes are too high for him to avoid hearing from the front line engineers, scientists and other workers who make sure our drinking water and the air we breathe are safe for all Americans.”

This piece has been updated to include comments by Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.