A lead crisis: Tragedy, recovery and compensation

A historical photograph of the West Calumet Housing Complex provided by the East Chicago Public Library for the Northwest Indiana Times.

By Evelyn Metric, Lilly Pace, and Claire Toomey

“We don’t feel safe anymore,” said Maritza Lopez, an East Chicago, Indiana, resident of 54 years. “Our home is no longer a safe haven.”

To demand compensation for their losses and health risks, 38 East Chicago households filed a lawsuit against Atlantic Richfield Co., Tesoro Corp., E.I. DuPont De Nemours and Co., The Chemours Co., and U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery on Oct. 31.

This lawsuit alleges heightened health risks due to lead and arsenic for those in the city’s Calumet sections. The residents also cited declining property values, emotional distress, and difficulty in selling their homes to leave the toxic neighborhood as reasons for taking legal action. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, alleges that these corporations acted in "willful and wanton manner and in reckless indifference" while operating in the East Chicago area. Atlantic Richfield Co., and E.I. DuPont De Nemours and Co., did not respond to phone calls when asked to comment.

This lawsuit is one of the latest episodes in a decadeslong environmental saga in East Chicago where high lead and arsenic contamination have plagued residential areas since at least the 1980s. The area is a Superfund site, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s term for sites contaminated with hazardous wastes. The USS Lead Superfund site – listed on the National Priorities List of the worst contaminated sites in the country – covers the former shuttered USS Lead facility along with 322 acres of residential land in East Chicago.

USS Lead Zones Map
Residential zones slated for lead cleanup in East Chicago, Indiana. Zone 1 includes the West Calumet Housing Complex and areas with the highest soil concentrations of lead and arsenic. Residents have moved out of the complex. Zone 2 includes 587 properties, where cleanup for the year has been prioritized for homes where pregnant women or children live. Zone 3 includes residences and the Carrie Gosch Grade School. Yard cleanup in Zone 3 will be concentrated at high priority homes this year. (Graphic by Lilly Pace/Medill. Source: EPA’s USS Lead Superfund site.)

On Nov. 30, the EPA announced a $22.6 million lead and arsenic cleanup at a former DuPont facility adjacent to the USS Lead Superfund site. DuPont is one of the responsible parties at the USS Lead site because its hazardous wastes contaminated the adjacent land. 

'My health issues were coming from this'

Maritza Lopez moved to East Chicago when she was only six months old. She has personally experienced years of health problems, which she has begun to investigate in terms of the contaminants in her environment. When her neurologist ordered a heavy metals test and found high levels of lead, arsenic, and cadmium in her urine, Lopez said she “just knew – you know how they say you have a sixth sense? – I knew that my health issues were coming from this, that there’s something in me.”

Lopez lost her two brothers, sister, and father to various health issues, and her mother battled cancer twice. This is a major reason why she is so vocal in trying to uncover the possible health dangers that result from high levels of toxins, and in speaking out to warn others.

“I will not allow myself to be just as culpable as those companies or agencies. From federal down to city they have known about this and they have not stepped up to protect us,” she said.

Currently, Lopez is advocating for the U.S. EPA to carry out widespread medical testing for people who both live in the community currently or used to reside in the area. She thinks that this may allow individuals to catch potentially life-threatening physical, neurological, and behavioral disorders and illnesses, such as kidney damage and reduced brain development, as early as possible. She emphasizes this as particularly important, considering that many East Chicago residents and their families have lived in the contaminated area for their entire lives and are now worried about how this will impact their long-term health.

Housing complex built at site of former lead plant

“In 2006, I had to have a complete hysterectomy at 29,” said Akeeshea Daniels, an East Chicago resident of 41 years and co-chair of the East Chicago Community Advisory Group. “After having the hysterectomy, I began to lose bone mass and no one knew what was going on with me. That’s when my son started pre-K and I started noticing different things were wrong with him. He wasn’t retaining information. He didn’t know basic sight words. They did some form of testing and found out that he had ADHD.”

Residents in the West Calumet neighborhood of East Chicago have felt a multitude of negative effects from the contamination. The West Calumet Housing Complex, built in 1972, housed more than 1,000 residents but is now empty and awaiting demolition. The housing complex was built on ground formerly occupied by a lead refinery and adjacent to a secondary lead smelter that operated until 1985. Federal and state agencies began testing the housing complex site for contamination about two years later. They found high levels of lead and arsenic. Yet, to the dismay of many residents, the EPA did not formulate cleanup efforts for the site until it, as well as the surrounding East Chicago area, was declared a Superfund site in 2009.

“[The government has] known about this for 30-some odd years,” said Jared Jones, a Northwestern University law student currently researching the Superfund site. “It’s only been in the last, like, 15 months they’ve really been making a concerted effort to get it cleaned up.”

Demolition, residential yard cleanup

In July 2016, Mayor Anthony Copeland announced that residents needed to move out of the complex based on the EPA’s reports of contamination, leaving thousands struggling to find new homes. On Sept. 21, 2017, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said that it had approved the demolition of the lead- and arsenic-contaminated housing complex. While it may seem like a solution for other residents to leave homes in the contaminated area, this is not a feasible move for many East Chicago residents.

“This is something that is so stressful,” Lopez said. “We can’t pack up and move, we can’t afford that.”

The EPA, with funding from Atlantic Richfield and DuPont, expects to clean approximately 723 residential yards with lead levels of at least 400 parts per million of lead and 26 ppm of arsenic. As part of the cleanup, workers will remove two feet of contaminated soil and replace it with clean soil, including six inches of topsoil. Workers will then put grass seed or lay sod on the topsoil and transport the contaminated soil to a licensed landfill for proper disposal.

Residents, however, are concerned about the EPA’s division of the yards to be cleaned.

“They’ll subdivide people’s lots into 4 parts and it may be that one quarter of your property needs to be cleaned up, but the part directly next to that doesn’t and the difference could be as little as 2 ppm and [that will] still keep it from being cleaned up,” Jones said.

According to Denise Abdul-Rahman, the environmental and climate justice chair for the Indiana NAACP, another concern that residents have expressed is about their treatment by officials when they come to test a family’s soil and water.

“They’re not given any type of respect,” Abdul-Rahman said. “That process is broken and culturally incompetent. No respect for the people that have been victimized or terrorized by environmental injustice. I think it’s the epitome of environmental racism,” Abdul-Rahman said.

A Northwest Indiana Times article reported that an estimated 9,000 of 11,000 water service lines in East Chicago contain lead, according to a service line inventory on file with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

In September, the city began replacing 400 lines at properties in the USS Lead Superfund site with lower levels of contaminated soil. Until their services lines are replaced, residents of the Superfund site have been given water filters. However, according to Daniels, many of the residents have been using bottled water.

“We shower and we wash clothes. That’s it, we don’t do anything else with the water,” said Daniels, who has been using bottled water since 2008.

Residents are hoping to become more involved with the EPA, the primary decision maker regarding the cleanup of the Superfund site going forward. Many residents currently don’t feel like they have any input into what’s happening at the site.

“We were told by the community [residents] that they felt they didn’t have access to city officials,” Abdul-Rahman said. “They still really don’t, except the city has a contracted attorney that does communication at the EPA sessions that they have periodically for the community [meetings]. So they still feel, and it is reflected in those meetings, they don’t feel like they have access to the actual city decision-makers with the exception of the attorney.”

With the goal of becoming more involved in decision-making last year, a group of residents and advocacy organizations filed a motion to intervene in the case between the EPA, as represented by the Department of Justice, and the companies responsible for the contamination at the Calumet neighborhood. The court will hold a 2-hour oral argument on the motion on Jan. 16.

Catherine Garypie, the associate region counsel for EPA Region 5 told the Northwest Indiana Times in late October that the EPA’s main concern with the motion is timing.

"Our concern was that it was late” in the remediation process, Garypie said. "That was our big issue."

To continue voicing their concerns and hopes for the neighborhood in an organized manner, East Chicago residents have formed an East Chicago Calumet Coalition Community Advisory Group. This CAG group is represented by lawyers at Northwestern University’s Environmental Advocacy Center.

“The EAC helps the CAG by explaining the Superfund process to residents, listening to resident concerns, and then working alongside community members to raise up their voices in interactions with government officials,” said Debbie Chizewer, the Montgomery Foundation Environmental Law Fellow at the center.

In their Saturday meetings, group members discuss community preferences for the site cleanup and remediation. Along with the CAG group, residents and the NAACP have also created multiple events for lead health and healing to help residents who are having a difficult time with the Superfund site cleanup.  

“We still have a lot of people who are recouping from things they lost. I didn’t realize all we left behind until it was time to move into our new places,” said Daniels, who lived at the housing complex for over 13 years. “Some of the things like dishes, forks. You didn’t realize that you left everything behind, so just maybe find a family and donate water or just a simple thing like a bath or face towel. These are things we had to leave behind because we were so scared to take anything with us.”

Production-Relate Waste pie chart
According to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, this was the breakdown of waste management methods in East Chicago in 2016. According to the EPA, the methods range from the most environmentally favorable to the least. Source reduction (eliminating waste at its source) is the most favorable with recycling, energy recovery, treatment next in line, and disposal or other releases as the least favorable method. Although more was recycled in 2016 than any other year and it represents the highest percentage of waste management, the least favorable option - disposal or other releases - still accounts for 20 percent of all waste that is not eliminated at the source. For a community that is suffering from issues related to toxins and contaminates, it is crucial that production-related waste from big companies is handled in an environmentally responsible manner. (Graphic by Claire Toomey/Medill. Source: EPA's 2016 TRI East Chicago, Indiana Fact sheet.)

TRI facilities
TRI facilities release air, water, and land contaminants. These contaminants pose many threats to human health, such as lung problems, cancers, and neurological disorders. Indiana ranks 1 out of 56 states/territories nationwide based on total toxic releases per square mile. (Graphic by Lilly Pace/Medill. Source: EPA's 2016 TRI East Chicago, Indiana Fact sheet.)

 

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