(CNN)Environmentalists say USS Lead Superfund in East Chicago, Indiana, is the poster child of environmental injustice.
The people who live there are at risk of lead contamination at every turn. It’s in their drinking water and it’s in their soil. More than one thousand people were forced to evacuate, according to Debbie Chizewer at Northwestern Law School, who has worked very closely with the affected residents. A local school was shut down and a public housing complex was also evacuated after soil tests showed lead and arsenic contamination levels 228 times the amount the Environmental Protection Agency considers potentially hazardous to children.
It was the first superfund site EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has visited — making a trip there Wednesday — and the agency said he was the first administrator to visit this particular site. Pruitt visited “to discuss cleanup and hear directly from East Chicago residents affected by contamination in their community,” the agency said in a press release.
At a press conference, local officials praised Pruitt for visiting the site.
The community is what’s a called a legacy contamination site. It was listed on the “National Priorities List” of the worst contaminated hazardous waste sites in the country in 2009. The site includes part of the former USS Lead facility along with nearby commercial, municipal and residential areas, including the West Calumet public housing complex.
Barbara Bolling-Williams, state president of the Indiana branch of the NAACP, said she is cautiously optimistic following Pruitt’s visit, but added that his visit comes with the threat of “a skinnier EPA budget, fewer regulations — and rumors Chicago’s regional EPA office could be shut down looms in the background.”
The Trump administration’s proposed budget calls for a 31% cut to the budget, including cuts to the agency’s environmental justice program. The program is intended to support poor, often minority communities with severe environmental challenges.
One week ago, the local chapter of the NAACP said it invited Pruitt to a roundtable discussion on environmental justice, which happened Wednesday morning. In attendance were residents, NAACP national President Cornell Williams Brooks and community members. Pruitt skipped that event, and instead invited a group to a meeting of his own at a local school that was shut down as a result of the lead contamination in the community.
Bolling-Williams, who was invited to Pruitt’s meeting, said: “Pruitt listened to all of our concerns but he did not offer any solutions.”
She said her organization wants to see the EPA do more to protect the East Chicago community. The NAACP presented Pruitt with a list of demands, including a call for an executive order that would include a greater commitment to communities like East Chicago.
“We need them to commit to adjusting cleanup plan for the site. Instead of digging up two feet of contaminated soil for disposal, digging up eight feet. We want that soil to be disposed of properly so as not to cause further contamination, we want continued testing of the soil and ground water in this area and a commitment to ensure the residents exposed to the lead get the physical and mental health care they need for the rest of their life. That includes financial help to make sure that happens. “
EPA spokesman J.P. Freire told CNN in an email: “Forget about the politics. Administrator Pruitt was working for environmental justice by meeting with the real residents affected by lead contamination and by committing to get results.”
In its press release, the agency laid out the accomplishments of its cleanup effort under Pruitt:
- East Chicago is receiving $16.5 million in EPA State Revolving Fund (SRF) funding for drinking-water infrastructure upgrades.
- EPA, the state and the city are working together to coordinate lead service-line replacement with cleanup work to expedite completion of the work and minimize disruptions.
- EPA provided 54 homes with filters and bottled water while Superfund work was underway at those properties in Zones 2 and 3. This year, Indiana will distribute filters to all residents in Zones 2 and 3.
The Natural Resources Defense Council told CNN that Pruitt has yet to respond to its request for more EPA assistance and oversight in the lead problem in East Chicago’s drinking water. Those demands include: Oversight of East Chicago’s ongoing attempts to improve its corrosion control treatment; expanded blood-lead level testing of children under age 7; bottled water and home water filtration systems to residents throughout the city and testing the city’s drinking water to determine the extent of the contamination.
During his visit, Pruitt provided brief comments at a press conference in East Chicago but quickly exited without answering questions from reporters. The Agency’s press release quoted Pruitt saying: “I’m focused on getting EPA back to the basics of protecting human health and the environment, and one of my top priorities is delivering real results for the people of East Chicago.’
Pruitt went on: “Since I was sworn in as administrator, funding has been secured for drinking water infrastructure upgrades in East Chicago, filters and bottled water have been provided to residents and cleanup of contaminated soil has resumed.”