Some residents of a lead-contaminated public housing complex in northwest Indiana welcomed a visit from the new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday, while a union representing EPA workers in Chicago criticized Administrator Scott Pruitt for not meeting with staff amid rumors that their regional office may be closed.
Pruitt’s visit to the West Calumet housing project in East Chicago, Indiana, was the first he has made as EPA administrator to any of the any of the nation’s 1,300 superfund sites. It came just days after a new report that the Trump administration was considering closing the Chicago-based regional office that serves six states around the Great Lakes. That idea has been dismissed by the head of the regional office, according to published reports.
In East Chicago, about 1,200 mostly low-income black and Latino residents of the complex are being forced to move out because of high levels of lead that were found in the soil and drinking water.
Pruitt visited the complex and the adjacent residential neighborhood that make up what’s known as the USS Lead Superfund site.
“It’s the EPA’s objective, my objective as administrator of the EPA, to come in and make sure that people’s health is protected here in East Chicago. And that they can have confidence that their land, their health is going to be secure in the long term,” Pruitt said in a brief statement to reporters who waited to hear him speak outside the now-shuttered Carrie Gosch Elementary School building.
After meeting with local, state and federal officials — and some residents affected by the contamination — Pruitt made a brief statement and took no questions from reporters. Pruitt said the EPA will take steps to restore the public’s confidence, but he did not offer specifics.
“What we talked about today is setting forth concrete steps, progress that we can measure in the near term to restore that confidence,” Pruitt said.
While Pruitt’s visit was welcomed by officials in this small, industrial and Democratic-dominated city, he drew criticism from the union representing EPA workers. They cried foul over his decision to skip meeting with them at the Chicago regional office. Rumors of the office’s closure prompted the union and elected officials to hold a press conference Wednesday, speaking out against any cuts.
The union says closure would kill about 1,000 jobs and put many programs at risk, including the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an effort that protects and restores Great Lakes waterways.
The White House proposed significant cuts to the EPA, and many officials think it could come at the expense of a couple of regional offices. Illinois lawmakers and Chicago EPA workers said they’ve reached out to the EPA about the possible closure.
They said they’ve only gotten “non-denials” in response. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said even if the rumor of closing the regional office is a trial balloon, she wants to pop it.
“If they had any thoughts about closing this office, we wanted to take no chances and make sure that we stood in opposition,” she said.
Mike Mikulka, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents local EPA workers, said the regional office extended an invitation to Pruitt, but was told he was unavailable to meet during his visit.
Mikulka said that is not typical of administrators.
“I think that if the head of the EPA is traveling anywhere in the region as a matter of courtesy, we’ve always seen that the administrator would come to the local office and meet with the staff,” he said.
Prior to Pruitt’s visit in East Chicago, about 50 environmental activists held a rally to protest cuts to the EPA and the forced evictions of residents of West Calumet.
But superfund site resident Maritza Lopez welcomed Pruitt’s visit.
“Seeing the face of the affected persons makes a difference. The fact that he came here to tour the superfund site, that means a lot,” Lopez said.
East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland said he invited Pruitt to the city in early March.
It was Copeland who ordered the evacuation of the West Calumet residents last summer.
The housing complex was built over land that had been used by lead and copper smelting companies for nearly a century before being shut down in the early 50s.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make to tell people from their homes but I know the irreparable harm that could happen to them, “ Copeland, a Democrat, said. “This is not going to end in a day, a week or a month, but if we stay true to the course, I think you will see something horrific be righted.”