Indiana Mayor Accuses EPA Of ‘Failing To Protect Human Health’

epa east chicago
Tae-Gyun Kim Tae-Gyun Kim/AP
epa east chicago
Tae-Gyun Kim Tae-Gyun Kim/AP

Indiana Mayor Accuses EPA Of ‘Failing To Protect Human Health’

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The mayor of East Chicago, Indiana is taking aim at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the way it is handling lead-contaminated soil in a public housing complex.

In a letter to Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy, Mayor Anthony Copeland accuses the EPA of failing in its “duty to protect human health.” The letter is dated July 14, 2016 and was obtained by the Times of Northwest Indiana.

West Calumet was built in the early 70s over land once used by a lead smelting company. Over the last decade, the EPA has been testing the soil in the housing complex and in two adjacent neighborhoods of homeowners.

Two years ago the EPA, the State of Indiana, and two companies responsible for the lead contamination entered into a consent decree to clean up the federally designated superfund site.

The EPA’s plan was to remove contaminated soil in around more than 130 housing structures in the West Calumet Housing Project.

Robert Kaplan, the acting regional director for the EPA, told WBEZ last week that the proposal would have been safe and effective.

But Copeland said the plan didn’t go far enough.

“Their actions to date amount to nothing more than band-aid solutions,” Copeland wrote. “[The EPA] continued to be committed to the cookie-cutter remedial action plan which was selected before the EPA had test results which show unprecedented high levels of lead in the soil.”

In May 2016, Copeland learned of some extraordinarily high lead levels in the soil in and around some homes in the complex.

Copeland has since ordered the removal of 1,200 residents from the West Calumet housing project for safety concerns.

“Despite the EPA’s knowledge for more than a decade of the unprecedented high levels of lead contamination in the soils, the EPA neither performed nor requested testing of residents’ blood-levels. Instead, when the City became aware of the extreme, high levels of lead in soil on May 24, 2016, it immediately commenced testing. Primarily results reveal that hundreds of children suffer from excessive levels of lead in their blood,” Copeland wrote.

The city also accuses the EPA of withholding soil testing results from the city but did share them with the local utility provider NIPSCO.

Copeland is requesting a meeting with McCarthy. He also sent copies of the letter to President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

“I find it compelling that the American people, in their compassion can send Flint bottled water, but it’s unfortunate that they can’t send the residents of West Calumet potted soil to protect them from the extremely high, unprecedented levels of lead contamination around their homes which the EPA has known for about a decade and longer, yet to date failed to honor its duty to protect them.”

The residents of West Calumet will be provided vouchers to relocate to any public housing complex in the U.S. However, the process is slow and will take months to complete. As a result, the EPA has been covering contaminated soil with mulch and cleaning the inside of tenants’ homes to prevent lead from entering.  

Residents have been provided vouchers for temporary hotel living until their homes are done being cleaned. The residents will return to their homes for a few more months until vouchers for permanent housing is made available by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The release of the letter comes on the same day the EPA will host an open house of its new command center in East Chicago. It’s hosting the event with the U.S. Department of Urban Development and the East Chicago Housing Authority.

Follow WBEZ’s Michael Puente on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.