Workers remove lead-tainted topsoil from the yard of an East Chicago home near where U.S. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt met with area residents and community leaders Wednesday. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt met with residents from the lead-tainted West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana, on Wednesday. The small community has been embroiled in a Flint-like catastrophe after high levels of lead were discovered across the public housing facility. Last summer, residents were notified that they had been exposed to heavy metals for years and would need to find new places to live. Only a few families remain.

Pruitt’s visit comes at a time when rank-and-file EPA staff are revolting and just a few days after news reports revealed that he was considering closing the local EPA regional office in Chicago. A week earlier, a spill at the U.S. Steel plant in northern Indiana sent chemicals spilling into Lake Michigan.

Pruitt made a statement to the media after meeting residents from the West Calumet Housing Complex.Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Flanked by Indiana governor Eric J. Holcomb and a gaggle of other elected officials, Pruitt said only a few words and didn’t address the potential closure or chemical spill. He simply said that he was there to discuss the ongoing cleanup and affirm his commitment to East Chicago’s residents.

“East Chicago, the reason I am here, is it is important to show confidence to the people here in this community that we are going to get this right,” he said.

“Please know that it is the EPA’s objective,” he continued, “to come in and make sure that the people’s health is protected here in East Chicago, and they can have confidence that their land, their health, will be secure in the long term. We are committed to doing that in a very efficient and effective way so that we can give back and see progress in the community.”

As the Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued the agency that he now manages, and has questioned the man-made origins of climate change.
But Pruitt wasn’t in East Chicago to discuss science. He came to hear the stories of people in West Calumet, including Maritza Lopez, a local organizer who lives in a nearby home. “Our first concern that we had was about the dissolving of Region 5,” she said referring to the EPA’s Chicago office. “There is no way we could afford that.”

The meeting was closed to the public, and Pruitt left without taking any questions. But Lopez says that an EPA senior advisor, Kenneth Wagner, told her that it would not be consolidated with the regional office in Kansas, as was reported by the Chicago Sun-Times. Lopez says she was told that, “No, they are not going to close down that office.” Robert Kaplan, the regional administrator, has made similar comments.

The Chicago office employs about 1,000 people, some of whom were plenty ticked off about Pruitt’s reported plans to watch the Chicago Cubs play the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field instead of meeting with their union reps. While Pruitt didn’t visit the Chicago office, it’s unclear if he caught the game.

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to reduce the EPA to “tidbits,” and has proposed a budget that would shred the agency’s budget by more than 30 percent—including money used to rehab so-called Superfund sites like West Calumet. Pruitt has spoken positively about the federal program in the past, telling a gathering of the nation’s mayors last March that he’d defend water infrastructure and local grant initiatives from Trump’s budget cleaver.

Akeeshea Daniels and her two sons are among the families scheduled to be relocated from the lead-contaminated West Calumet Housing Complex.Credit: ALYSSA SCHUKAR

Local resident Akeeshea Daniels hopes that will be the case. She says the EPA is providing badly needed resources for her community. Daniels met with Pruitt too. She says he seemed serious and took detailed notes about her story.

“I told him about what was going on here and my children,” Daniels said, noting they had been exposed to lead. “He listened to all of us, one by one, to hear what was going on with each one of us. . . .To hear it first hand, and for us to be able to tell our life stories then and there, I think he was touched.”

That said, Daniels is still waiting to see what Pruitt does. She says the visit made her feel better about him, but she’s wants action. “We will see what happens from this point on and keep our fingers crossed,” she says.

Residents say around 30 families remain in West Calumet, despite emergency relocation letters having been mailed out last month. Daniels and a handful of others were assigned new homes in Altgeld Gardens, the far-south-side public housing complex in the center of the “toxic donut.” But, unhappy with moving to Chicago, she appealed her assignment with the East Chicago Housing Authority. She will instead soon be moving into a new home in East Chicago.

Pruitt came to East Chicago at the invitation of Governor Holcomb, who joined him at the presser along with Indiana senators Joe Donnelly and Todd Young, as well as Congressman Pete Visclosky, Indiana state senator Lonnie Randolph, and Indiana state representative Earl Harris Jr. During the briefing, Holcomb said that the impacts of the lead contamination have made clear the systemic problems facing families in East Chicago.

“Each visit has cemented in my mind what many people have long known to be true,” he said.

Also speaking during the conference was East Chicago mayor Anthony Copeland, a vocal critic of the EPA. In the past, Copeland has said the agency’s actions amount to “band-aid solutions” and has accused the EPA of “failing to protect human health.” But he spoke in more subdued tones today, thanking Pruitt for coming.

“Somethings you have to see to believe,” he said. “You have to feel the heartbeat of the situation.”

In August, Copeland told the 1,100 people living in West Calumet that the housing complex was contaminated with lead and other heavy metals.
While Pruitt huddled with Lopez and others inside an old school building, local organizers and members of the Sierra Club rallied outside in the now nearly abandoned housing complex. A group of 100 or so people marched along quiet streets of West Calumet, passing boarded up homes and empty driveways.

Environmental activists protest outside the Carrie Gosch Elementary School before Pruitt’s visit.Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Tara Adams, a 43-year-old mother of three kids, is still living in West Calumet but will soon be moving to the nearby city of Hobart, Indiana.
She likes her new home, but says she can’t afford all the extra expenses that come with the move.

“I have to pay water, sewage, trash, I have to buy a stove and a refrigerator. I was told not to take my furniture because of the lead.” The housing authority gave her $500 to buy new stuff, but she says it isn’t enough. “That’s not a bed,” she says.

Fiddling with a protest sign that reads “East Chicago Demands Clean Water,” Thomas Frank says the community wants a guarantee for ongoing health care and more stringent soil testing and remediation. “That’s our goal,” the local organizer says.

“We are worried because the Trump administration is planning on defunding the programs that we are depending on, like the Superfund program, the Great Lake restoration initiative, and the environmental justice program especially.”