Updated 5:23 P.M. CT
Alex Mendoza knows the West Calumet housing complex in East Chicago, Ind., quite well. He grew up near there and practiced soccer on a field in the neighborhood.
Mendoza, now an attorney, filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the city of East Chicago Thursday after lead contamination in the housing complex’s soil will require 1,100 residents to move out by the end of November.
“The residents of this community have been discriminated against because of their national origin or race. The majority of the community is African-American, and there is also some Hispanics that live there as well. It’s discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act,” Mendoza told WBEZ. “These people were placed in a community housing project when they knew, or should have known, that the land was heavily contaminated by lead.”
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Hammond, Ind., has 13 defendants, including several children. It names the city of East Chicago, Mayor Anthony Copeland, the East Chicago Housing Authority and its director Tia Cauley, along with BP, Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) and DuPont, the companies allegedly responsible for the lead contamination.
For more than 50 years, a lead and copper smelting company operated on the land that is now home to West Calumet.
Anaconda was acquired by ARCO, which is owned by oil giant BP. DuPont also operated in the area and, like ARCO, are paying into a $26 million consent decree to help clean up a site that includes West Calumet, which was built in the early 1970s.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been testing the area over the past decade, but elevated lead results last May pushed Copeland to order the immediate evacuation.
However, that’s only a temporary fix. Instead, the residents have until Nov. 30 to secure alternative housing with vouchers provided by HUD.
Although funding is still uncertain, the city plans to demolish the housing units and allow the EPA to fully clean the site. The mayor has not said what will happen to the property once it is cleaned, although that could take years.
In the lawsuit, Mendoza claims it makes no sense that the residents are being forced to move when officials knew about the contamination for years.
“The people didn’t know, but the government did, and they let them live there for years. Now, all of a sudden, they want these people to just pick up and leave. Making the entire community leave is just kind of bizarre to us because they’ve known this for a long time,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza said residents should be allowed to stay in their homes.
“We do think that these people have property rights and should be able to live in their homes lead free,” he said. “They should be allowed to remain in their homes and in a safe environment, just like any other person in America.”
Carla Morgan, city attorney for East Chicago, said the city does not respond to pending litigation.
Morgan reiterated Mayor Copeland's claim that the city didn’t get word from the EPA of the high lead levels until late May. Copeland has claimed it was the EPA who withheld lead levels from the city and alleged the agency had “failed in its mission to protect human lives.”
An EPA spokesman has said it is working closer with the city to provide more timely information.
Last month, the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law filed a housing discrimination complaint with HUD that alleged the city of East Chicago and the East Chicago Housing Authority failed to have a relocation plan in place before ordering residents out.
Mendoza’s lawsuit is one of two that were filed Thursday in the same court.
The second suit, filed on behalf of a mother and her four children, also targeted the city of East Chicago, Copeland and BP, ARCO and DuPont.
Beyond the residents of West Calumet, there are another 6,000 people affected in two nearby residential neighborhoods who are not being forced to leave.
The EPA has plans to clean up those properties, and have concluded lead levels are not as high as in the West Calumet complex. So far, no lawsuits have been filed on behalf of those homeowners.
On Friday, the EPA said it will be meeting with homeowners in what is called Zone 2 and Zone 3 to go over soil testing results that show “levels of lead and arsenic at some properties warrant further action,” according to a statement from the EPA.
Those results show at least 20 of 136 properties tested are now targeted for cleanup next spring. There are a total of 590 properties in zones 2 and 3.
The EPA’s meeting with homeowners will take place on from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 24 at Riley Park.
Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.