EAST CHICAGO — Residents and their supporters railed against any cuts at EPA and demanded action to ensure those affected by the lead crisis are made whole as they prepared Wednesday for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s visit.
Meanwhile, representatives from various community organizations made their way inside Carrie Gosch Elementary School — closed to students last summer amid fears of lead contamination — to take residents’ concerns to a delegation of state and federal officials.
NAACP President Cornell Williams Brooks said Pruitt and Gov. Eric Holcomb arrived Wednesday to address an environmental crisis “40 years in the making” in East Chicago, but President Donald Trump’s budget plan contemplates gutting the EPA.
Brooks also cited concerns about rumors the administration also might be considering eliminating two of EPA’s regional offices, including the Region 5 office that currently is overseeing cleanup efforts in East Chicago.
“The administrator and governor are arriving at a moment where the residents of this city, these cities, literally are watching or witnessing their children being poisoned by lead in the water, heavy metals in the soil, contamination in their homes,” Brooks said.
Residents rally over health concerns
In the West Calumet Housing Complex, where 1,000 residents were ordered to leave last summer because of high lead levels in the soil, a group of residents and activists gathered. They held signs saying, “East Chicago demands clean water,” and “Living wages on a living planet. Stop corporate greed. Fully fund the EPA.”
EPA began a cleanup last year of lead- and arsenic-contaminated soil in the Superfund site, which includes the entire Calumet neighborhood. During a pilot study, the federal agency also found elevated levels of lead in drinking water at some homes. Lead in water and lead in soil are not related, and EPA has said that if up to 90 percent of the city’s water lines are lead, all residents should use a certified filter.
Emails obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request showed EPA had a role in the city’s decision to change the chemical it was using to control corrosion of lead pipes. An expert said the chemical the city was using actually could have increased lead releases.
Maritza Lopez, a Superfund resident, held up a multipage list of medications she takes daily to show those gathered at the NAACP news conference the effects of contamination in the neighborhood she has long called home.
Later, during a rally outside Carrie Gosch Elementary School, Lopez said she sought testing at the Mayo Clinic that showed she has lead, arsenic and another toxic metal in her bones.
Brooks, surrounded by members of the NAACP, the Twin City Ministerial Alliance, the East Chicago/Calumet Coalition Community Advisory Group and the Community Strategy Group, laid out a list of demands.
Some of the same demands were included in a letter the CAG recently sent to Pruitt, asking EPA to commit to engaging more residents in its decision-making process; expedite a groundwater study at the Superfund site it recently began earlier than planned; adjust its remediation plans as needed following the release of a forthcoming public health assessment; grant a Safe Drinking Water Petition asking EPA to use its emergency powers to respond to its own discovery of elevated lead levels in the city’s drinking water; ensure residents’ health is adequately protected during soil cleanup and their properties are fully restored; and do more to address environmental injustices faced by East Chicago residents and other low-income communities of color around the U.S.
Instead of an executive order rolling back regulations requiring corporations to prevent contaminating the air, water and soil, Trump should issue an executive order protecting the residents of “Main Street” who are dealing with the consequences of lax environmental regulations, Brooks said.
“We stand at the side of anybody who supports the residents. We stand in the face of anybody who does not support these residents,” he said. “We will not relent. We will not give up. We will ensure that this issue is before the public.
“Today is one step farther, one step forward, and we will not take a step back. We call upon the EPA administrator. We call upon the governor. We certainly call upon the president to take these reforms and weave them together in the context and on the back of an executive order for environmental justice,” Brooks said.