In late July of last year, families in the West Calumet Housing Complex opened their mailboxes to find a letter that would change their lives.
A few months prior, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had told East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland about soil
samples from the West Calumet complex that contained lead and arsenic dust at
more than 100 times the safe limit.
The public housing project was home to at
least 300 families, most of them with children — a population of nearly 1,200
people in all. It was also part of an EPA Superfund site, the designation given
to the nation's most contaminated pieces of land.
The Calumet neighborhood of East Chicago —
including the West Calumet Housing Complex — got that designation in 2009.
State and federal officials had known about
the contamination, left behind by old smelting facilities in an area that's
mostly home to low-income, black and Latino families, since at least 1985.
But Mayor Copeland's letter last July was the
first some residents had heard of it.
"I was devastated," says Akeeshea
Daniels, who raised her youngest son in West Calumet and herself grew up a few
blocks outside the complex. "We were blindsided. We didn't know anything
about this lead."
The mayor's decision to evacuate the complex
sparked a year of frantic action by public officials, residents and lawyers.
All were trying to get a handle on a lead contamination problem that extended
far beyond West Calumet.
The problem had existed for nearly a century —
and state and federal agencies had known for decades.
A year later, the housing complex is empty,
and the EPA has cleaned dozens of yards in the surrounding Superfund site. But
for many East Chicago residents, the struggles of living with lead
contamination are just beginning to unfold.
Listen to the broadcast hour of this piece for reporter analysis and more.
CAUSE & EFFECT
The EPA measures lead in parts per million.
Imagine a bathtub. One drop of ink in that tub represents about one part per
million — one part ink for every million parts water.
The government's limit for lead in soil is 400
parts per million, or 400 drops of ink in our tub. For arsenic in soil, the
limit is usually 26 parts per million.
The EPA found levels of lead and arsenic in
East Chicago over 100 times the legal limit. The highest sample found was over
90,000 ppm — 90,000 drops of ink in a bathtub.
Maritza Lopez has lived in the contaminated
area her entire life, several blocks outside the West Calumet Housing Complex.
Over the years, she's battled breast cancer, diabetes, arthritis, fibromyalgia,
anemia and more.
She remembers friends dying from brain and
breast tumors when they were in grade school.
"We were kids — we were always playing in
the dirt," she says, sitting in her living room near a dining room table
covered with dozens of bottles of prescription medication. "We would go
into the woods there. We had a fort."
In the past year, the EPA has covered some
contaminated soil with mulch and put up signs telling residents not to play in
or around the dirt.
For people like Lopez, though, the damage is
done. Doctors recently found lead and arsenic in her blood and bones.
Prescription medications take over a dining
room table in the East Chicago home where Martiza Lopez has lived her whole
The federal government has only regulated
exposure to toxic substances like these for a matter of decades. Much remains
unknown about how these chemicals affect long-term human health, especially for
people exposed to combinations of them, from different sources and in different
But to Lopez, the answer is simple.
"This isn't coincidental," she says.
"It is just common sense and logic."
Residents in East Chicago
Blood lead testing is available Monday-Friday, from 9-11:30 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. The East Chicago Health Department also has a hotline for residents, at 219-391-5323.
The Indiana State Department of Health has resources for all Indiana residents, including a Census tract risk map. Local health departments conduct lead testing, including blood testing for children under age 7.
Scientists understand more about how each
chemical individually affects people. Lead is known to harm young children — it
hinders brain development and even causes hearing loss. In adults, it affects
the body's nervous system in particular, causing memory loss and seizures.
Arsenic can lead to vertigo and digestion
issues and can affect the liver.
Despite the unknowns about how decades of
contamination have affected Calumet families, Maritza Lopez says she's
frustrated the city and state have only been offering free blood tests since
the crisis began in earnest one year ago.
The lack of "continued testing to find
out 'what [is] the cause and effect of everything' caused me to check into
it," she says.
Lopez is now involved with a Purdue University
study that could help her get some answers.
The university is home to one of only three
scanners in the country that can detect levels of lead in people's bones using
X-ray fluorescence. Now, researchers have developed a smaller, portable version
of the scanner. They're testing its accuracy on residents like Lopez.
The research team also wants to take a
broader, multidisciplinary look at East Chicago. Their study, still in
extremely early stages, will involve social science, epidemiology, toxicology
and plenty of input from community groups in the city.
When a contamination crisis like East
Chicago's becomes national news, as it did last summer when Mayor Copeland
ordered the West Calumet Housing Complex emptied, dozens of federal, state and
local agencies get involved.
Among those that have played a role in the
past year: The EPA and U.S. Departments of Justice and Housing and Urban
Development, or HUD; the Indiana State Departments of Health and Environmental
Management, or IDEM; and the East Chicago Housing Authority and Health
Akeeshea Daniels, the now-former West Calumet
resident who felt "blindsided" by the mayor's letter to housing
complex residents, blames all these officials for what's happened to her
"I just feel like they all dropped the
ball," she says. "HUD, the city — everybody. Everybody that's ever
known has dropped the ball. But they chose to remain in silence and watch
people die, month after month, year after year. And nobody says anything."
The housing complex was built in the 1970s
near still-active factories, on ground that contained toxins from other
long-gone facilities. The Superfund is named for one of them — USS Lead, a
Those plants operated from the early 1900s
into the 1980s. In 1985, IDEM found the first signs of soil contamination after
shutting down one remaining factory for environmental violations.
Since then, the EPA has identified two
companies it calls "potentially responsible parties," which own or
have owned assets responsible for the contamination: DuPont, the Delaware-based
chemical company, and Atlantic Richfield, a subsidiary of oil giant BP.
This decree is also apparently the only record
of a crucial decision: to divide the residential part of the Superfund site
into thirds. The first part, Zone 1, contains the publicly-owned West Calumet
Housing Complex. The other two zones contain private homes and empty lots.
Akeeshea Daniels moved from the private part of
the Superfund site into the West Calumet complex 13 years ago. That was long
after officials and some residents knew about the contamination, and soon after
her youngest son was born.
He grew up in the complex. Now in eighth
grade, he has asthma, allergies, ADHD and elevated blood lead levels.
"He's living in a house full of lead, and
I went into that complex with a healthy child," Daniels says. "I feel
like the people that did this to him — they should pay for him. They should pay
to take care of him and make sure he's okay for the rest of his life. Because I
didn't do it."
DuPont and Chemours, a spinoff company that
now owns DuPont's chemical liabilities, did not respond to a request for
BP spokesman Brett Clanton sent a statement on
behalf of Atlantic Richfield.
"All remediation of the site is being
directed by the EPA, which maintains dialogue with the residents of the
community," he wrote. "Atlantic Richfield continues to work
cooperatively with EPA and the State of Indiana."
NOWHERE TO GO
The EPA had no hand in one crucial part of
this story: Mayor Anthony Copeland's decision to evacuate and demolish the West
Calumet Housing Complex.
Despite the high lead and arsenic levels
measured in some samples there, the federal agency had planned to clean the
complex with its buildings still standing and families still inside. This is
how they've since begun cleaning homes in the Superfund's two other residential
"I think that the displacement of those
families could have been prevented," says EPA special assistant Albert
Kelley, a former Oklahoma banker brought on by agency administrator and former
Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to work on Superfund issues. "We
had a remediation plan that would have cleaned Zone 1 extensively and made it
EPA Special Assistant Albert Kelly spoke with Indiana Public Broadcasting's Nick Janzen about the agency's progress cleaning up the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago.
Mayor Copeland didn't trust that assessment,
after the EPA informed him of West Calumet's high levels of contamination. In
emailed comments this week, he says he stands by his decision to order
residents to move.
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"I do not believe there was any other
choice given the dangers and issues that arose," he wrote. "There can
never be any compromise in protecting lives from contamination."
In addition to the closure of the West Calumet
Housing Complex, East Chicago's school district closed Carrie Gosch Elementary
School, which sits next to the complex in Zone 1. A week before school started
last fall, teachers and staff rushed to prepare a then-abandoned middle school
for Carrie Gosch's displaced students.
Indiana Public Broadcasting's Stan Jastrzebski sat down with education reporter Claire McInerny for an update on Carrie Gosch Elementary School, which was shuttered a week before school started fall 2016.
For Akeeshea Daniels, this meant upheaval upon
upheaval. In the midst of learning her neighborhood had been contaminated for
her and her children's entire lives, she was also faced with finding them a new
place to live.
Daniels had no financial flexibility. She
relies on disability benefits, and so would need the Section 8 housing voucher
HUD planned to provide all West Calumet residents.
The vouchers were supposed to help residents
pay rent for new housing, and the city provided them a list of options it says
were Section 8-eligible.
But the reality was much more complicated. It
was months before the vouchers and other resources officials promised, such as
moving boxes and relocation counselors, materialized.
And voucher-eligible housing was far less
plentiful in the region than officials seemed to think. Daniels needed a
three-bedroom apartment, and she didn't want to be too far from East Chicago,
her extended family and her youngest son's special education teachers.
She says it took her four months to find the
right place. And the right place was in the Superfund site. Daniels moved to
Zone 3 of the Superfund in April, a full nine months after receiving the
"Regardless of it being contaminated with
lead, I was like — well, I'm already contaminated," she says. "I'm
not gonna say I felt the safest settling [in another part of the Superfund],
but it was home."
EPA contractors lay down sod atop new, clean soil in a backyard in Zone 3 of East Chicago's Superfund site.
The EPA is already cleaning yards near her new
home, in a fairly straightforward process that involves digging up contaminated
soil, transporting it to a landfill and replacing it with clean dirt and sod.
The inside of Daniels' house still hasn't been
tested for lead contamination.
Like Maritza Lopez, Daniels also wants more
health resources for her neighborhood — a clinic or regular access to
specialists, a concept she compares to a veterans' hospital.
HUD officials say they believe this is the first time public housing has overlapped with a Superfund cleanup. They recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the EPA on working together in future situations like East Chicago's.
Then there's the matter of her 1,200 former
neighbors from West Calumet. Many of them moved out of East Chicago to other
cities in Northwest Indiana, to Illinois, to Atlanta. The final few families
left in June of this year. The boarded-up complex now sits behind a chain-link
It's a major blow to East Chicago's already
limited affordable housing stock. It's unclear if the West Calumet site will
ever be housing again — HUD has says it probably won't rebuild public housing
on the site, even if it's cleaned up.
East Chicago and neighboring cities like Gary
are still struggling to rebound economically from population loss and industrial decline
in the latter half of the 20th century.
Both cities aim to take advantage of proximity
to Chicago by building affordable housing for commuters, in hopes that more
residents and new businesses will follow.
In recent years, the city of East Chicago has
focused its revitalization efforts on the North Harbor neighborhood, which
faces Lake Michigan. Copeland said in a statement he hopes the same thing can happen in
"[W]e plan on returning it as a viable
area, just as we have done with the North Harbor community," he said.
Copeland wants the area cleaned up before starting to plan that revitalization, even though he's had the issue on his mind for years. At an EPA meeting in 2012, records show he expressed concern that without comprehensive cleanup, the area could become a "wasteland."
This was even before Copeland knew how severe
some contamination in West Calumet was.
After that revelation, when Copeland announced
he'd asked HUD for permission to tear down the city-owned, HUD-funded West
Calumet complex, the EPA sent him several letters asking what he planned to do
with the complex next.
Depending on the use of a property, the EPA
will apply different cleanup standards. The agency will spend more money to
leave residential areas cleaner than it leaves industrial ones, for example.
Copeland maintains the EPA had promised to use
its residential standard on West Calumet, and he wanted to hold the agency to
that even after demolition was in the works.
The EPA resisted for nearly a year, but
recently agreed to go ahead with that cleanup plan without waiting for Copeland
to say how the complex will be redeveloped.
"The highest standard that we can
remediate it to is residential, and the decision was made that that would
probably at some point in time be potentially there for residential
expansion," says Kelley, the EPA special assistant. "The right thing
to do is to clean it to the highest standard, and that's what we're doing, because
we don't want a replication of what's happened there now."
But before the city can tear the complex down,
it needs approval from HUD — and residents are putting up a fight against that
A HUD official (left, in black) looks on as an East Chicago resident testifies about plans to demolish the West Calumet complex, during a hearing at the former Carrie Gosch school in June.
At a hearing on HUD's environmental assessment of the demolition plan in June, people like
Akeeshea Daniels expressed concern that HUD had never dealt with a situation
like this before.
They worried razing the buildings of West
Calumet could spread contaminated dust into other parts of the Superfund and
HUD hasn't yet issued a timeline for
finalizing its approval of the demolition plan.
In the meantime, Daniels wants her former
neighbors on hand to demand answers. But fewer and fewer are showing up.
"I just feel like everybody should stay
here and fight," Daniels says. "Even if you can't live here, just
come back and fight and show us some support."
The city's 23rd annual Calumet Day block party
and reunion barbecue, on a recent Saturday, wasn't as crowded as normal without
the hundreds of relocated West Calumet residents.
Daniels staffed a table at the celebration in
East Chicago's Riley Park with Maritza Lopez, who wore a Calumet Day shirt
proclaiming "East Chicago forever" and listing names of local
Calumet Lives Matter president Sherry Hunter, left, sports her group's signature shirt at the independent Community Strategy Group's Calumet Day table with Rev. Cheryl Rivera.
An East Chicago resident grills ribs and sausages at the Calumet Day celebration in East Chicago's Riley Park, which sits within the Superfund site.
Members of East Chicago's EPA Community Advisory Group hand out literature on lead contamination and collect information from residents at the city's recent Calumet Day celebration.
Voices from East Chicago's Calumet Day, 2017: Dolores King, Leola Tucker, Maritza Lopez and Akeeshea Daniels, with reporter Annie Ropeik.
Lopez and Daniels are part of the Community
Advisory Group, convened and funded by the EPA as part of the Superfund cleanup
At Calumet Day, the women handed out lists of
questions people should ask their attorneys, along with EPA literature on lead
contamination. And they collected information from passing neighbors about
testing they'd received, their property values and health concerns.
Across the park, another table of activists
wore black shirts reading, "Attention: Calumet Lives Matter." They
were the Community Strategy Group, an independent organization.
"We're the ones that are making demands
on political officials and the EPA as opposed to joining them," says
organizer Thomas Frank. "What we've been doing is making demands that we,
the community, is a part of the decision-making process."
The Rev. Cheryl Rivera, also part of Frank's
group, hopes their effort can unite Superfund residents and people across all
of East Chicago's neighborhoods.
Rivera was setting up pallets of bottled water
donated by neighboring schools and rotary clubs — because East Chicago's soil
isn't the only thing contaminated with lead.
Like in many older cities, the service lines
that connect East Chicago's water mains to people's homes are made of lead. The
EPA tested the drinking water that runs through those mains last fall as it
prepared for cleanup. That would give the agency a baseline to check later
whether vibrations from cleanup equipment had caused lead buildup to shake
loose into the water.
Those preliminary tests showed that 18 homes
already had elevated lead levels in their drinking water. This alarmed the
city, which says it was in compliance with state rules. The EPA's test was more
thorough than state requirements.
Now, East Chicago is adding more of the
corrosion control chemical used to keep its lead pipes from contaminating the
water supply — the same as a measure taken in Flint, Michigan.
That chemical takes a while to kick in,
though, so the state of Indiana is also providing water filters for residents'
faucets. And it's set aside $3 million to start replacing the city's lead
service lines during EPA cleanup.
But Cheryl Rivera's group is still marshalling
bottled water for residents on its own. A year ago, she says, she didn't expect
this problem to last.
"But it looks like it's going to go
on," she says. "It's not a clear, definitive answer as to if the
water in the city is safe to drink."
In March, the Natural Resources Defense
Council petitioned the EPA to issue an emergency declaration for East
Chicago's water situation. It's the same request the NRDC made in Flint.
The EPA still has not responded to the East
Residents like Akeeshea Daniels are also
worried that public officials aren't keeping close enough tabs on the needs of
affected families' — especially those who have left East Chicago.
That's something attorney Kate Walz, at the
Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, wants to work on.
"That means healthy soil, and water, and
air, and low crime, and good schools, and an opportunity for growth and for
someone to realize their full potential," she says.
But those counselors weren't hired in time to
make much difference, Walz says. And in Indiana, it's legal to turn away people
paying rent with a Section 8 voucher.
"So Ms. Daniels and others moved within
the Superfund site, which is not a success at all," Walz says.
Resources for residents were tacked up in the
West Calumet community center, the neighborhood's makeshift relocation center,
Now that the West Calumet complex is empty and
"the time pressure is off," Walz says, she hopes to work with HUD to
organize what she calls a second move program.
"I would hope there would be an
opportunity ... to reach out to those families again and support them to make a
second move, if they want, into a healthier community," Walz says.
Her plans might help families like Akeeshea Daniels'.
Daniels and her fellow community activist,
Martiza Lopez, spent all year saying they wanted to remain in East Chicago,
where they grew up and where their families and friends still live.
Now, as health concerns become more pressing,
both say they're not sure they can stay much longer.
All these struggles are part of a bigger
picture. America has a lead problem. Hundreds of cities across the country have
aging, lead-based drinking water infrastructure. And the Calumet neighborhood
of East Chicago isn't the EPA's only Superfund site contaminated with lead.
In fact, the program was created to address
lead and many other contamination problems across the country.
But "the Superfund program is
broken," says attorney Debbie Chizewer of the Environmental Advocacy
Center at Northwestern University.
"When it was enacted, the idea of the
program was to clean up the most contaminated sites as quickly as possible and
then to recoup the costs from the responsible parties later," she says.
A tax on chemical and oil companies was
supposed to fill the "super fund" for the program.
But Congress let that tax lapse in 1996.
"So since that time, the money has
disappeared and EPA is reliant on annual allocations," Chizewer says.
"There's not enough money in the system to help clean up sites, so the
incentive is to negotiate a settlement first and then clean up the site."
And Chizewer argues East Chicago residents
haven't been well-represented in those negotiations.
Chizewer wants residents to have a voice in
that planning process. She argues it would correct missteps the EPA has made so
far. For example, the agency's cleanup plans originally didn't include indoor
lead dust. With advocacy and public pressure, she says, that's changed.
The EPA also omitted Zone 2 of the Superfund
from the consent decree altogether. The agency has since gotten $16 million for
cleanup of the most contaminated yards in that area
from the potentially responsible parties.
The agency is still looking for long-term Zone 2 cleanup funds.
A house sat vacant last fall in Zone 2 of the
USS Lead Superfund site.
Asked what she would do to remedy the harm
already done in East Chicago, Chizewer sighed and paused.
"It's really hard to make the residents
whole at this point," she says. "An ideal solution would compensate
families that have been impacted for their health problems and ongoing medical
expenses, and also to compensate families for the property loss."
It's unclear which agency or company could supply that compensation.
President Donald Trump's EPA administrator,
Scott Pruitt, has been a career opponent of the agency he now leads. And
Trump's budget still calls for a 30 percent cut to the Superfund program.
Yet Pruitt has promised to prioritize Superfund, calling it one of the agency's core missions.
East Chicago's was the first Superfund site
Pruitt visited after taking office. He met with local
lawmakers and residents, including Maritza Lopez. She saw the visit as "a
"He's really taking notice," she says.
"This isn't about politics — this is how I feel as a resident, a taxpayer.
You give me a lending ear, and I see you doing something, and I'm going to give
you acknowledgement for that."
East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland also says
he feels recent months have seen a "complete turnaround" in
communication with federal agencies and residents.
The EPA aims to finish cleanup in Zones 2 and
3 of the Superfund by the end of this year's construction season, when the
ground that crews are digging up freezes.
If necessary, they'll start again when the spring thaw comes.
The old sign from West Calumet Housing Complex
found a temporary new home at the annual Calumet Day celebration. The block
party was held recently in East Chicago's Riley Park, which sits in the
Superfund site and has been partially remediated.
Read more of Indiana Public Broadcasting's East Chicago coverage here or at your local station's website. And join the conversation on social media using #ayearinEC.
Web design: Lauren Chapman
Reporting: Lauren Chapman, Nick Janzen, Claire McInerny & Annie Ropeik