Indiana housing complex to be razed after toxic lead levels detected
The complex was identified as a problem area years ago, but the government has only just decided to take action.
The West Calumet Housing Complex is not just a housing project; it has been home to 1,100 since 1972. However, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland announced last month that it would be demolished after the EPA released a report showing that the lead levels were as much as six times above the least conservative EPA standards.
However, the EPA has known about the possibility of chemical contamination in the project for at least a decade.
The complex is home to mostly black residents and 670 children who have been playing in the grass that contains 19 times the maximum lead levels advised for bare soil in play areas. Parents in the complex are scrambling to test their children for lead poisoning as they also prepare to uproot their lives and leave their homes.
“We used to have mud fights and play slip-and-slide” Anthony Abbey, 33, who grew up playing in the complex’s wet grass, told the Guardian.
“You were throwing lead at each other,” added Mario Irving.
The complex is built just miles north of the USS Smelter and Lead Refinery, where lead and arsenic were used in industrial operations from the early 1900s until 1985. According to a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the areas within a half-mile north or northwest of the site were first referred to by the EPA as a potential Superfund site in 2004 as well as the actual USS Smelter location in 2006.
On top of that, the complex was literally on top of another smelting plant. The Anaconda lead smelter area was considered a lower priority due to its size. However, a letter from Copeland claims that when the Anaconda was demolished, it “may have simply been bulldozed, and that the West Calumet Housing Complex was then built on top of the demolition debris,” the Times of Northwest Indiana reported.
The double whammy of lead and arsenic contaminants had the EPA designate the area a Superfund site in 2009, meaning it became a high priority for the EPA to clean up.
However, a 2010 EPA report downgraded the urgency for the housing complex. The report found that because the numbers of children living with excessive blood lead levels had dropped and were “consistent with the national average.”
According to a letter from Copeland to the EPA, the study involved no one from the city health department.
But the EPA was still responsible for testing the areas and cleaning up areas that would require remediation. It wasn’t until 2012 that the EPA released a detailed plan for cleaning up the site, which would have included “excavation and off-site disposal of soil with high levels of lead.”
That 2010 report allowed the EPA to put off testing the area and cleaning any soil that required remediation. Instead, the EPA focused on a two-year long legal battle between the USS Smelting plant’s former owners and operators, Atlantic Richfield Company and E.I. Du Pont de Nemours and Co. (DuPont). The case was settled for $26 million.
The settlement from the case still placed the majority of the responsibility in the EPA’s hands, but made Atlantic and DuPont foot the bill, saying, “EPA itself will do the work in the neighborhood. EPA will identify the yards that need to be remediated, will work with property owners to develop property‑specific drawings showing which soils on each property must be excavated, will do the excavation, and will restore the properties after excavation is complete.”
Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) Commissioner Thomas Easterly said of the settlement, “Everyone wins when responsible parties come together and agree to do what is best for the community.”
It would be another two years before the EPA would finish testing the soil. Robert A. Kaplan, the EPA’s acting regional administrator for the Great Lakes region, told the New York Times that the delay was related to contractors hired by the EPA and concerns over the quality of their test results.
But on May 24, the EPA handed over its lead and arsenic data to city officials, advising that the soil be remediated. In June, the EPA began covering the soil with mulch, going door-to-door to talk to residents and posting signs. Kaplan insisted that residents of the housing complex have known about the contamination for at least a decade, and that it was brought up in public notices and community meetings.
However, whether residents were aware of the sheer extent of contamination seems unlikely, given that the West Calumet Housing Complex is home to 357 families with children – the most vulnerable to lead poisoning.
In a class action lawsuit filed by seven residents of the West Calumet Housing Complex, one mother claims that a year ago, her son was diagnosed with elevated blood levels.
Krystle Jackson, the mother, notified the housing complex, but according to the lawsuit, “ECHA [East Chicago Housing Authority] failed to inform her of the lead contamination of the site and took no steps to attempt to remediate the hazard surrounding her home, or help Ms. Jackson’s family move to uncontaminated housing.”
When Jackson’s one-year-old son was found to have elevated blood levels, “she was distraught because she realized that her home was seriously and potentially permanently harming her children and ECHA was taking no steps to stop that or help her.”
She moved out of the complex and in with a family member as a result. Mere weeks later, she learned that the complex was being shut down, and residents were receiving housing vouchers. She requested one, but was told “she was not eligible for a voucher because she had already left the complex.”
In a meeting with residents earlier this month, Mayor Copeland said, “I cannot multiply this enough times, to tell you the irreparable damage that can happen to your child,” adding, “I do not see how you can remove tons and tons of dirt and don’t aggravate the problem.”
The EPA maintains that the problem can be solved by remediating the soil, but Copeland may have reason to not trust the federal agency. In July, he told EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy that the agency threatened to treat the city as a “responsible party” when they resisted having the soil raised in 2012, the Times of Northwest Indiana reported.
These bureaucratic spats have done little to help the 1,100 residents who have until November 1 to find adequate housing with their vouchers. For families, this is only 90 days to find landlords that will accept their voucher and are renting buildings in safe neighborhoods close to good schools.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has allotted $1.9 million to the East Chicago Housing Authority to help residents pay for new rentals anywhere in the country. However, the question of whether that money can be used to help residents cover moving expenses remains to be seen.
For many, this response is inadequate at best and many residents are now concerned about health problems they’ve faced. Tyra Taylor, 45, told the Guardian that she raised her three children in West Calumet, and one daughter has epilepsy and cervical cancer.
Akeeshea Daniels, 40, is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to leave the complex after her 13-year-old son was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and her 18-year-old son had to repeat his senior year of high school, due to being frequently hospitalized for stomach pain.
“I have a voucher for Sept. 1,” Daniels told the Times. However, just having the voucher may not mean much to landlords who “all want deposits, large amounts, which I don’t have lying around.”
Daniels is a member of the class action lawsuit against the East Chicago Housing Authority. The lawsuit notes that for residents trying to stay in the area, finding Section 8 housing will be difficult. Many landlords do not accept Section 8 vouchers, and the ones who do require high monthly incomes that are rarely met by people who need housing vouchers. For example, a voucher friendly 3-bedroom unit in Hammond requires “gross household monthly income of $3,200. ($18.50/hr. based on a 40 hour work week).”
The lawsuit also notes, “Should relocation continue to unfold in this manner, families will likely make moves to other segregated neighborhoods or surrounding communities, end up in poor quality housing stock with lead or other hazards, or move to neighborhoods with equally troubling levels of environmental contamination.”
“They think because we stay over here we’re nothing, we’re lowlifes, we’re black and we’re poor, they treat us like dogs,” Irving told the Guardian. “They’re killing us softly.”