East Chicago residents face risk of high lead

By Cloee Cooper

Sarah Willis lives near a former U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery, Inc. plant with her husband and granddaughter in East Chicago, Indiana.

The area was designated as a Superfund site, a  federal government program designed to fund the cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants. While residents in the nearby West Calumet Housing complex were ordered by East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland in September to relocate because of high lead and arsenic levels in the soil, Willis and many others in the nearby residential area are waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean their contaminated soil.

On Oct. 17, Willis received a letter from the EPA, indicating that her backyard soil had unsafe lead and arsenic levels. According to the EPA, when soil has above 400 parts per million of lead, it is considered unsafe. The soil in Willis’ backyard was tested at 1,170 parts per million, almost four times more than is safe.  But, remediation in her area is moving slowly.

Sarah Willis reads EPA letter on Dec. 1, 2016
East Chicago resident Sarah Willis reads a letter from EPA indicating there are unsafe lead concentrations in her soil. Dec. 1, 2016. (Cloee Cooper/MEDILL)

The EPA split the Superfund site into three zones. The agency does this in order to get companies which were formerly or currently operating in the area to take responsibility for funding the cleanup. So far, ARCO and DuPont have taken responsibility to pay for the cleanup process in Zones 1 and 3. The EPA is currently seeking companies to take responsibility for the cleanup in Zone 2.

“You know, they label Zone 1, 2 and 3. I don’t like to be labeled. But they did label. I’m in Zone 2,” says Willis.

The West Calumet Housing Complex was built in 1970 right next to the U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery. That area is part of Zone 1, presumably because it was closest to the source of lead and arsenic.

Zone 2 is the neighboring residential area. The EPA has been sampling and excavating in the area since November.

Byron “Duke” Florance, lives down the block from Sarah and a few blocks from the complex. He has lived in East Chicago his whole life and remembers when the city built the affordable housing complex down the street.

Willis Florance outside his home in East Chicago on Dec. 1., 2016
Willis “Duke” Florance outside his home in East Chicago, Indiana. Dec. 1, 2016. (Cloee Cooper/MEDILL)

“It just makes me boil every time I think that they came in here and built a community on top of a toxic dump! They wouldn’t do this anywhere in this country, especially if it was not a minority-based community,” says Florance.

The Indiana State Department of Health has offered free blood level tests for residents living in the Superfund site since July. Jeni O’ Malley, the director of its Office of Public Affairs, says out of the 1,593 people who were tested, 17 children under 7 had blood lead levels above the Center for Disease Control threshold. They keep track of children under 7 and pregnant mothers because they believe they are the most vulnerable populations.

Florance says he thinks the toxic soil has contributed to his health problems.

“I myself feel that I have been a victim of the lead,” says Florance. “I was diagnosed in 2015 with bone cancer. My doctor said one of the major contributors of bone cancer was lead.”

The EPA completed remediation of 17 homes in Zone 2 this fall but won’t continue cleanup of other residences in the area until summer. For Willis, that won’t be soon enough.

“They need to declare this an emergency, because I don’t think it can be fixed, ” says Willis.

“They are going to demolish the projects. But the people here in Calumet and West Calumet, they are not going to demolish our homes. So we still have to live here and suffer through it,” she adds.

Photo at top: EPA workers clean contaminated soil in East Chicago. Dec. 1, 2016. (Cloee Cooper/MEDILL)