Not Your Sacrifice Zone: In Lead-Poisoned East Chicago, Residents Fight for Their Health and Homes

A public housing development was built on the site of a lead smelter. Now, residents are demanding justice.

Kaela Bamberger

Little boys play with skateboards at the West Calumet Housing Complex on September 4, 2016 in East Chicago, Indiana, just months before mass evactuation. Children are at the highest risk for adverse effects of lead. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

EAST CHICA­GO, IND. — As the U.S. Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment (HUD) rep­re­sen­ta­tive tried to explain that he was only respon­si­ble for the hous­ing demo­li­tion, the crowd began to grum­ble. They want­ed to hear about hous­ing vouch­ers, the relo­ca­tion of res­i­dents to pol­lu­tant-free homes and the long-term health impacts of liv­ing on lead-con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed land.

More than 40 years of poisoned land is now taking its toll on the health of the community, which is over 90 percent African-American and Latino.

This past April, the last of more than 1,000 res­i­dents were forcibly evac­u­at­ed from the West Calumet Hous­ing Com­plex, a pub­lic hous­ing project built at the for­mer site of a lead smelter, because of the high lev­els of lead in their yards. In order to get the area back to res­i­den­tial stan­dards,” HUD has been tasked with demol­ish­ing the com­plex, while the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency has been instruct­ed to replace top lay­ers of the sur­round­ing soil.

This recent meet­ing, held haunt­ing­ly in a desert­ed ele­men­tary school in the most con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed part of city, was a result of com­mu­ni­ty demands for a voice in the demo­li­tion of West Calumet Hous­ing Com­plex. HUD claims that the demo­li­tion would pose no health risks to the sur­round­ing area. But East Chica­go res­i­dents gath­ered on June 26 to demand a seat at the table and a full envi­ron­men­tal impact assess­ment before the process begins.

When HUD Deputy Region­al Admin­is­tra­tor James Cun­ning­ham con­tin­ued to dodge their ques­tions, unrest stirred the crowd. The res­i­dents of East Chica­go, Ind., have been deal­ing with bureau­crat­ic side-step­ping since the EPA put their town on the list of top-pri­or­i­ty clean up sites in 2009

This was a hoax. This was an affront to the com­mu­ni­ty,” says East Chica­go res­i­dent Rev. Cheryl Rivera about the meet­ing. They were not pre­pared at all to answer questions.”

Though more than 300 fam­i­lies have been dis­placed, those who remain have made it clear they will not accept lead-filled air, infra­struc­ture, soil and water. More than 40 years of poi­soned land is now tak­ing its toll on the health of the com­mu­ni­ty, which is over 90 per­cent African-Amer­i­can and Lati­no. The EPA learned of the lead con­t­a­m­i­na­tion in 1985, but did noth­ing sub­stan­tial about it until 2009, with res­i­dents still being invit­ed to move into the hous­ing com­plex until 2016.

The site of the hous­ing com­plex is only one part of the sto­ry. The neigh­bor­hood as a whole is one of the most severe­ly pol­lut­ed in the coun­try, with the rate of lead in the soil as high as 91,000 parts per mil­lion (ppm) in some loca­tions. To put that in con­text, the EPA’s accept­able” amount of lead to have in the soil is 400 ppm, although no amount of lead is safe to have in the blood­stream of chil­dren. The com­mu­ni­ty is also sub­ject to a host of oth­er indus­try runoff, includ­ing arsenic and oil spills.

These peo­ple have been tram­pled on, stepped on, dis­re­spect­ed, and allowed to move where ill­ness­es still exist,” says com­mu­ni­ty mem­ber Shirley Lowe.

I want to be treat­ed like a human being,” said Tara Adams after the meet­ing. I want respect.”

Com­mu­ni­ties of col­or must deal with a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of the poi­so­nous runoff of extrac­tive indus­try, and the gov­ern­ment is often slow­er to respond. Dur­ing Mike Pence’s time as gov­er­nor in Indi­ana, he ignored demands by East Chica­go res­i­dents and the city’s may­or to declare a state of emer­gency, or even visit.

Com­pare this neg­li­gence to Green­town, Ind., a 97-per­cent white neigh­bor­hood that received imme­di­ate atten­tion in 2016 from then-Gov. Pence to fix up the lead in the water of their neigh­bor­hood and high school. While the sit­u­a­tion has been resolved in Green­town, the hits just keep com­ing for East Chica­go: A new con­fined dis­pos­al facil­i­ty” (neu­tral lan­guage for tox­ic waste dump) is being pushed by the U.S. Army Corps dredg­ing project to go less than a mile away from the East Chica­go Cen­tral High School, despite past com­mu­ni­ty protest for this location.

The city’s woes can be traced to extrac­tive indus­try. East Chicago’s prox­im­i­ty to Chica­go, the valu­able iron ore from near­by Lake Supe­ri­or and its own local lime­stone deposits have lured dozens of pro­cess­ing plants to set­tle in and around it.

Okay, get this,” says Thomas Frank, who was fired years ago from his direc­tor posi­tion at East Chica­go Water­way Man­age­ment Dis­trict for speak­ing out against BP. The Amer­i­can Bar Asso­ci­a­tion includes 30,000 envi­ron­men­tal attor­neys. Of those, 28,000 are employed full time by indus­try and cor­po­ra­tions. Under 2,000 are employed by the gov­ern­ment. And less than 600 are employed by non­prof­its, some of which could be also [pro-]industry.”

The whole sys­tem is stacked up against us,” he says. We need to flip this whole chart around.”

Frank now orga­nizes with Com­mu­ni­ty Strat­e­gy Group, and their list of demands includes free, life-long health­care for those affect­ed by the lead and pol­i­cy change around how much indus­tri­al waste is legal­ly accept­able for res­i­den­tial areas. We want to be mak­ing pol­i­cy changes, we don’t want to do one-offs,” he says. That is, while indi­vid­ual repa­ra­tions for East Chica­go res­i­dents would be an imme­di­ate vic­to­ry, it wouldn’t con­tribute to the cur­rent and future strug­gles of oth­er poi­soned com­mu­ni­ties with no easy path toward justice.

More recent­ly, the adamant voic­es of com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers seem to have got­ten through. In a fol­low-up let­ter sent July 6, Cun­ning­ham of HUD promis­es that the affect­ed res­i­dents and the com­mu­ni­ty at-large will be involved and pro­vid­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties to com­ment in sev­er­al [upcom­ing] pub­lic meet­ings.” It is cer­tain that the res­i­dents of East Chica­go will be there, pre­pared to advo­cate for them­selves once again.

Kaela Bam­berg­er is a sum­mer 2017 In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern.
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