American industry disproportionately affects the health of minority and low-income communities, and East Chicago, Indiana—which boasts of having been the country’s “most industrialized municipality” during the industrial revolution—offers a glimpse into the kinds of environmental injustices now plaguing the rust belt.
In July 2016, nearly 1,200 people in the West Calumet Housing Complex of East Chicago learned their children’s blood carried levels of lead that tested as much as six times higher than the Center for Disease Control’s cutoff for lead poisoning.
In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that some of the city’s drinking water also contains high levels of lead, prompting Indiana governor Eric Holcomb to declare a disaster emergency for the 322-acre site, which includes the housing complex, Carrie Gosch Elementary School, and two residential areas east of the complex.
Though the homes were built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a USS Lead smelting plant operated in the area up until 1985. Contaminants, including lead and arsenic, left in the soil led the area to be designated a Superfund site, which requires a long-term response to clean up hazardous materials. A lead refinery, a copper smelter, and a secondary lead smelter were also active in the area.
As part of a legal settlement announced in November, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development advanced plans to help West Calumet’s public housing residents leave their homes. At that time, HUD ruled that residents could stay through the end of the school year, but residents learned in March that they had 14 days to evacuate their homes.
Many struggled to find a place to live in the city of 29,000 people. Some moved to Chicago, others to neighboring northwest Indiana communities. Having filed grievances to delay forced moves, a handful of families still remain at the complex. Once a bustling community, few signs of life remain in the emptied-out homes.
“We feel like we’re just being thrown out,” Nayesa Walker says. Her three-year-old daughter’s blood tested high for lead. There’s no safe amount of lead exposure for children.
In a July 2016 letter to residents, East Chicago mayor Anthony Copeland wrote, “your health and safety are always my first priority.” But nearly 80 percent of East Chicago’s 11 square miles is zoned for heavy industry, and many renters and home owners say they no longer trust the government for basic services.
On the campaign trail, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump promised to get rid of the EPA “in almost every form.” The Trump administration now wants to cut 31 percent of the agency’s funding. Several of the expected cuts—including its environmental justice program, which reduces the burden of pollution on low-income communities—would directly affect East Chicago. Lead cleanups, environmental protection enforcements, and restoration projects are also expected to be cut back or abandoned. v