Lead Contamination Leaves Homeowners Stranded | WBEZ
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Lead Contamination Prompts Relocation Of Public Housing Residents, Leaves Homeowners Stranded

Two years ago, Tamika Burks moved from Chicago to just over the state line in East Chicago, Indiana. 

She found a home for her four kids in the West Calumet Housing Complex. She could let them play outside because she didn’t have to worry about gun violence.

“They used to. They do not go outside anymore unless we’re going to and from the car,” Burks said. 

Before the housing complex was built, this site used to be the home of Anaconda Lead Products. 

Now, the ground is contaminated.

“If I would have known there was such a lead problem here, I wouldn’t have moved here,” Burks said. “My youngest is 3. We moved here when he was 1. That’s a problem.” 

Burks learned of the lead problem two months ago from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Samples taken by the EPA show lead levels are three times the federal safety standards and in some places even higher, much higher.

That’s why the 1,200 residents, including Burks, will eventually have to leave this complex to find housing elsewhere with vouchers provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Burks doesn’t want to move again. But at least she has the option.

Byron Florence lives right across the street from the housing complex and he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

“One hundred percent focus has been on people in the West Calumet complex. Nothing has been done concerning the homeowners east of that complex,” Florence said. “Nothing.”

Byron Florence standing outside of his home in East Chicago. The home is right across from the West Calumet public housing complex. Photo by Michael Puente.

Florence lives with his sister Cynthia Patton in the same two-story white house they grew up in.

“We played where the projects is now, that was our play area. My brother used to make club houses over there. We used to get a jug and push it down into that swamp and pull out tadpoles to take for our science project,” Patton said. “So we were really, really exposed.”

“If it’s bad over there, it’s equally as bad here. And we know it. But most people here have been here for 40 years or more,” Florence said. “And, what do they do? They just can’t up and go.”

Maritza Lopez lives seven blocks away.

She too grew up near where the lead company once stood. 

“I’m 53 years old, why am I so sick. My body is that of a 90 something year old,” Lopez said.

Lopez didn’t suspect lead may have been poisoning her all these years. 

“It was never disclosed to us that it wasn’t unsafe? It’s just shocking that overnight to find out these levels are this high. They haven’t even touched testing the people from these areas or the children,” Lopez said. “There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered but nobody is answering them for us.” 

Brad Denning is the on-scene coordinator for the U.S. E.P.A. 

He says while lead testing has been done for the last decade in some areas, results that came back two years ago were troublesome. 

“Data, sample data comes in over a period of years as they do the sampling,” Denning said. 

Instead of a safe level of 400 parts per million, sampling of the soil came back at 1,200 parts per million, and higher.

“One of the houses had 45,000 in the top six inches,” Denning said. “When that data came back, that prompted the mayor to recommend relocation for everybody.”

According to the city attorney for East Chicago, the city is working on a plan for homeowners like Byron Florence and his sister Cynthia Patton, though the city attorney couldn’t explain any details of the plan.

“I feel 100 percent, totally ignored,” Patton said. 

Cynthia Patton, left, sits at the kitchen table in her East Chicago home. She lives there with her mother, Lillie Florence, and brother, Byron Florence. Photo by Michael Puente.

“They don’t have a plan,” Florence said. “I don’t think, from here all the way back. They know so little. They have no idea how far this thing may go.”

Florence says if he could move he would.

But he doesn’t have the money for that unless someone buys his house and that seems pretty unlikely given that it sits on contaminated land designated as a superfund cleanup site.

Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana Studio Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.

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