Lead crisis in housing project was actually no surprise

In this photo taken Aug. 23, 2016, a sign from the Environmental Protection Agency is posted in front of West Calumet Housing Complex houses at East Chicago, Ind. (AP Photo/Tae-Gyun Kim)
In this photo taken Aug. 23, 2016, a sign from the Environmental Protection Agency is posted in front of West Calumet Housing Complex houses at East Chicago, Ind. (AP Photo/Tae-Gyun Kim)

EAST CHICAGO, Ind. (AP) — When the mayor in this industrial town ordered the evacuation of a 40-year-old public-housing complex this summer because of severe lead contamination, many people wondered: How could the problem have been overlooked for so long?

The complex, in a blighted corner of Indiana just across from Chicago, had been built on ground once occupied by a lead-products factory. Some yards had lead levels more than 70 times the federal safety standard.

The abrupt order to remove more than 1,000 residents, including about 700 children, made headlines across the country.

But it turns out the hazard wasn’t — or shouldn’t have been — a surprise to anyone in public office in East Chicago or responsible for the safety of the West Calumet Housing Complex.

A review of public documents and news coverage dating back to the 1960s shows officials at half a dozen local, state and federal agencies were aware residents were living on and playing in lead-tainted soil, though some of the most alarming readings weren’t widely known until recently.

In 1985, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management found elevated lead levels in yards just east of the complex, according to department records. The same year, the Indiana Department of Health found high lead levels in blood samples of some residents’ children. Even at low levels, exposure can cause nervous system damage and lowered IQs, according to experts.

In 2008, an EPA memo described “an imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health, welfare and the environment.”

Instead of prompting urgent action, the situation in East Chicago instead became an example of how longstanding problems can linger indefinitely in some industrial hubs and how environmental cleanups are often grindingly slow, hamstrung by high costs and the fact that the companies responsible for the pollution have long since gone out of business.

“It’s mind-boggling. You have so many people who could have and should have done something,” said state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, an East Chicago native who’s represented the city since 2008. “The bottom line is somebody just didn’t care.”

The history and local politics of East Chicago, a poor, largely black and Hispanic community of about 30,000, also played a role. People were unlikely to complain about factories that provided their livelihood, some here say, and the town’s top public officials have often been corrupt.

The housing authority director who chose the site in the late 1960s was indicted years later for taking kickbacks from the developer who built the project, records show. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and agreed to testify against other defendants.

Two of the last three mayors were convicted of corruption. The third, defeated in 2004 after serving more than 30 years, was cited in a malfeasance lawsuit against the city administration that resulted in a $108 million judgment.

The city councilman for the project has been jailed since last fall on a murder charge.

The evacuation order came in the wake of a highly publicized scandal in Flint, Michigan, where local and state officials were accused of making a lax response to lead contamination of the local water supply. Nine have been charged or taken plea deals after an attorney general’s investigation.

East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland has refused interview requests, deferring to City Attorney Carla Morgan, who says officials acted quickly after learning the latest soil sampling results in May.

She also told AP that the problems had been aired in public hearings over the years.

“The public knew everything we knew,” Morgan said.

However, in 2010 the EPA interviewed 25 residents and noted in a report that “the majority of people said that they knew little or nothing about the site.”

For years, the signs welcoming people to East Chicago proclaimed the city the “Industrial Capital of the World.”

One of the industries was the Anaconda Lead Products plant, which operated from at least 1938 to 1965. Just to the south sat the sprawling U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery, or USS Lead, which salvaged lead from old car batteries and scrap metal. Lead dust filtered by the smelter’s smokestacks was piled on the ground, open to the wind.

Smoke in the air “was a good thing, because it meant jobs,” said Thomas Frank, who tried unsuccessfully to start an environmental movement in East Chicago after moving to his wife’s hometown about 20 years ago.

In 1972, the city built the West Calumet Housing Complex, made up of three-story apartment buildings and brick duplexes with large lawns, on the old Anaconda plant site to provide housing for low-income residents.

Modern-day sensibilities would reject such an idea, but when the East Chicago Housing Authority was searching for sites, Executive Director Benjamin Lesniak said there was little available land except “in vacant areas which are surrounded by industries and undesirable residential areas,” according to a 1966 Chicago Tribune article.

Blowing dust from USS Lead was probably responsible for most of the area’s contamination, according to the EPA. But according to a city letter to the EPA, utility workers also found signs of toxic demolition debris from Anaconda under housing project homes. That was one of numerous red flags to emerge since USS Lead closed in 1985, according to documents reviewed by AP.

In 1991, USS Lead agreed to pay a $55,000 fine and place tarps over the lead dust piles. The factory buildings were demolished.

But it was almost another decade before the EPA conducted what it called “time-critical” removal of contaminated soil in nearby residential areas. The EPA planned to replace as much as 2 feet of topsoil with clean earth at 723 properties, at a cost of about $29 million.

Copeland, who took office in 2010, demanded the excavation go deeper. All the while, residents say they knew little about the seriousness of the threat. Public meetings on the issue appear to have been sparsely attended.

In May, after the EPA gave the city the results of testing last year that showed alarming hotspots, Copeland delivered the shocking news that everyone would have to leave.

EPA officials say they still stand by their original soil removal plan.

“We see this quite often,” said Douglas Ballotti, deputy director of EPA’s Superfund Division, citing many people who say, “Just get it all out of here.”

“We have to look at it from cost-effectiveness,” he said, since federal funds will have to cover most of the costs.

West Calumet residents, meanwhile, are struggling to find new places to live with the HUD vouchers they received, but tenants say some landlords won’t rent to housing project residents.

Shantel Allen, whose yard is one of the most contaminated, said she’s been notified that her 2-year-old daughter’s blood lead levels were six times beyond what the Centers for Disease Control considers concerning.

Allen, who’s married and has four other children, says the family’s health problems — from ADHD to headaches — “make sense now.”

“I’m upset because we were the last to know,” she said.

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