Blood, Lead & Soil

A Year In East Chicago

By Annie Ropeik with Nick Janzen & Lauren Chapman

July 26, 2017

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.


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 life.

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 places.

But to Lopez, the answer is simple.

"This isn't coincidental," she says. "It is just common sense and logic."

Testing resources
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.

Indiana residents

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 Department.

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 family.

Read past stories and explore more of Indiana Public Broadcasting's East Chicago coverage.

"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 smelting plant.

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.

The EPA and the two companies signed a legal document in 2014 called a consent decree. The corporations did not admit wrongdoing but agreed to cover $26 million of the EPA's cleanup costs.

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 comment.

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."


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 zones.

"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 very habitable."

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.

Read the materials given to West Calumet residents by the East Chicago Housing Authority.

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 mayor's letter.

"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 fence.

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 Calumet.

"[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.

Read a transcript of the 2012 EPA community meeting which was part of the EPA's planning process for cleaning up the USS Lead Superfund site.

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 approval.

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 the city.

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 families.

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 planning process.

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 Chicago petition.

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.

Last year, Walz helped West Calumet residents file a federal fair housing complaint with HUD and the city. It led to a settlement that got residents more time to move, and sought special relocation counselors to help residents find what Walz called "healthy communities."

"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, last fall.

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.

Last year, she helped residents file a motion to intervene in the EPA's consent decree. That's the court agreement with DuPont and Atlantic Richfield that lays out what will be cleaned up and who will pay for it.

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 breakthrough."

"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.