East Chicago Residents Seek Larger Role In Lead Contamination Cleanup

Jan 18, 2017


Residents of a lead contaminated neighborhood in East Chicago, Indiana want a larger role in the clean up process and they’re taking an unusual step to get it.

Seven residents of the lead and arsenic–polluted neighborhood want to join the Environmental Protection Agency’s lawsuit against the companies paying for the cleanup. The residents argue neither party represents their interests, and they want more say. An attorney representing the residents, David Chizewer, says its an uncommon tactic but an important step.

“So that they can have a voice in any changes that need to be made to the clean up process, because, as it’s gone forward so far it’s been inadequate,” says Chizewer.

One thing residents find inadequate? Time. The Environmental Protection Agency named the Calumet neighborhood of East Chicago a Superfund site almost 8 years ago. Only the most polluted areas become Superfund sites. This neighborhood’s soil is contaminated with lead and arsenic over 200 times higher than the level the federal government considers “reasonable.” Around 3,000 people live in the neighborhood.

The EPA began cleanup over seven years later, this past fall. The federal agency denied multiple requests for an interview for this story.

Debbie Chizewer, another attorney for the residents, says the EPA was required to do more testing before finalizing its clean up plan.

“Those requirements would’ve included evaluating the drinking water inside peoples’ homes, it would’ve included evaluating indoor lead dust, it would’ve included evaluating exterior based lead paint,” says Chizewer. “And none of that happened.”

The plan was finalized in 2012. In 2016, the EPA did clean lead contaminated dust from residents’ homes. And it tested drinking water in 43 homes. While 18 of these had unsafe levels of lead in the water, no other homes are scheduled for testing.

The lead in the water is from old lead drinking water pipes. It’s not related to the lead in the soil, which is a product of the area’s industrial past. But Debbie Chizewer says that doesn’t matter—residents still need the information.

“So that they understand on a site specific basis, what are the exposures of this community,” Chizewer says.

Contamination Goes Back Decades

Byron Florence has lived in the Calumet neighborhood all his life. He lives across the street from the West Calumet Housing Complex, which Mayor Anthony Copeland ordered demolished last summer because lead contamination there was so high.

Florence’s friend and neighbor, Ralph Crews, says officials have known about the lead contamination for decades.

“They knew back in the ’70s when they built those homes there. It was contaminated. It was a lead factory there. And they built right on top of it,” says Crews. “If that’s not crazy, what is.”

Florence agrees with his friend.

“They wouldn’t have done that in no other suburban area in this country. But it was a black, Hispanic neighborhood—throw it right there! They didn’t check the tests, they didn’t care, and then when they found out—hell, that’s too late,” Florence says.

Superfund Program ‘Broken’

State and federal agencies have recorded lead contamination in the area for at least 31 years. It can take years for officials to determine if a site so dangerous it needs federal help. Then, in the Midwest, it takes an average 16 more years for the EPA to finalize a clean up plan. In comparison, the East Chicago process was quick – the EPA designed the cleanup plan in 4 years.

Though the EPA chose not to comment in this story, it did direct Indiana Public Broadcasting to court documents related to the case, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of the EPA. In those documents, the EPA opposes the residents’ motion to join the suit. It argues it will slow the clean up even more, that residents have other ways to comment, and that the court cannot allow a citizen challenge while cleanup is underway.

The EPA concluded the memo with this:

“The work is proceeding. The Site will be cleaned up. Applicants will be heard. Intervention is neither allowed by law nor necessary under the facts. The United States respectfully requests that this Court deny the motion for intervention.”

Attorney Debbie Chizewer says the Superfund program is “broken.” Residents have filed a response to the EPA, and David Chizewer says the EPA has misinterpreted the law, and they do have a right to join the case.

The companies responsible for paying for the cleanup, DuPont and Atlantic Richfield, did not file a response to either motion.

A U.S. District Court in Indiana is hearing the case. Here are some of those court documents, from both the residents and the EPA: