In East Chicago, Indiana, where 90 percent of this population of 29,000 are people of color and one-third live below the poverty line, a lead crisis is unfolding and residents are concerned that the Environmental Protection Agency under Scott Pruitt is unlikely to respond.
For decades, industrial plants polluted the air and soil with lead and arsenic in East Chicago neighborhoods that included a public housing complex and an elementary school. In 2014, the EPA declared the lead plant in the area a Superfund site and began the cleanup, but a Reuters investigation in 2016 found that children living near the Superfund site still had elevated levels of lead in their blood. The EPA subsequently tested the water and found that not only did the homes in the vicinity have elevated levels of lead in their drinking water, but so did the entire city—much as Flint did during its 2014 water crisis. The EPA estimated that up to 90 percent of East Chicago homes received water through lead service lines.
In December 2016, before the EPA's findings were made public, Mayor Anthony Copeland sent a letter to then-Gov. Mike Pence, the vice president-elect, asking him to declare a state of emergency in the city so communities could acquire financial assistance for residents being forced to relocate because of the lead contamination at the Superfund site. Pence denied the request, but it was subsequently approved by his successor, Eric Holcomb.Like this? Use form in upper right to receive free updates
This month, a coalition of East Chicago residents sent a petition to the EPA renewing their request for help and asking for water filters, expanded blood level testing for children, and assurance that those affected had access to Medicaid. The petition charges that neither the city nor the state provided an adequate response to the discovery of lead in the drinking water and that the EPA has the authority to act, just as it did in Flint.
But the EPA that the community petitioned has radically changed. The appointment of Administrator Scott Pruitt, who often "disagrees" with scientific fact and was determined to gut the agency, set the stage for cutting programs that deter pollution and rolling back regulations that keep air and drinking water safe. Leaked versions of the EPA budget showed plans to slash funds for lead pollution cleanup efforts and environmental justice programs, both of which could assist the residents of East Chicago. The head of the EPA's justice office resigned after more than two decades of service, saying the proposed cuts are a signal "that communities with environmental justice concerns may not get the attention they deserve."