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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, August 23, 2016 10:00 pm

Is East Chicago the next Flint?

KATIE METTLER | Washington Post

In the years since the hazardous lead plants were operating in East Chicago, Indiana, 1,000 people have moved into the federally funded West Calumet Housing Complex. An elementary school was built in the region where toxic dust was once spewed. Children have played in the contaminated dirt.

It wasn’t until 2009, decades after the dangerous lead and copper factories closed, that the Environmental Protection Agency designated the area a priority cleanup site, according to the Associated Press. Three years later, tests showed alarmingly high levels of lead, and a plan was made to haul away tons of contaminated soil.

Still, nothing happened. The children kept playing.

Then in May of this year – nearly eight years after the first official red flag – the EPA gave East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland the test results. It was the first time he’d seen the numbers, his office told the AP.

The summer of panic began.

Soon signs were posted across the complex, warning parents to keep their kids out of the dirt and wash all their outdoor toys. Then another letter came, encouraging residents to find alternative housing while officials cleaned out the soil. And it escalated at the end of July, when the Housing Authority announced it would demolish the 346-unit complex – leaving at least 1,000 people without homes.

"Somebody dropped the ball somewhere," state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, an East Chicago resident, told the AP. "Maybe it was intentional, or maybe by mistake. Maybe it was negligence."

There is no imminent deadline for departure, reported the Times of Northwest Indiana, and HUD has released $1.9 million to the local housing authority to relocate residents.

The complex is located just outside Chicago, in a once industrial region, home mostly to African American and Hispanic residents.

Copeland, the mayor, has been praised by locals for his quick movement on the issue, which some are comparing to the Flint water crisis, which drew national scrutiny earlier this year when high levels of lead were found in the city’s drinking water.

"I think it reaches the level – in my opinion at this time – of what occurred in Flint, Michigan, with the water crisis," Randolph told CBS Chicago. "Looks like we might have a land crisis here."

East Chicago residents are being tested for lead poisoning. Of the 400 preliminary blood screenings that have been conducted so far, 29 have been high, reported the AP, including tests of 21 children younger than six.

Bishop Tavis Grant of Greater First Baptist Church told CBS Chicago he knows of 25 families with children who have tested positive for lead.

Even low levels of lead or arsenic in the body can cause irreparable damage in children. It affects the mind, and can reduce IQ and lead to behavioral problems. High levels can damage the kidneys and nervous system, and in extreme cases cause seizures and even death.

For years, Akeeshea Daniels told the AP her sons – 12 and 18 – have experienced health complications: breathing issues, severe headaches, hyperactivity in school.

"My biggest fear is that my 12-year-old will never be normal," Daniels, 40, told the AP. "He will always have these behavior problems, this learning disability. It’s like it will always keep him held back a step or two."

Years ago, when the lead and copper plants were still open, Daniels told the AP she would watch the wind grab hold of the dark, toxic dust and push it toward the housing complex. "You would think it was a sandstorm," she said.

When Daniels received the letter from Mayor Copeland in the mail, informing her she would need to move out of the complex after 13 years of residency, she was shocked.

"I was like, ‘Wait a minute. What is he saying? How long have you known this?’" Daniels told the AP. "They were doing testing all of these years and they never said anything."

In an editorial published Aug. 22, the Times of Northwest Indiana praised the mayor’s office and criticized the EPA’s delayed action.

"A bright side to this dire health fiasco has been the quick response of Mayor Anthony Copeland’s administration after learning from the EPA in May about the untenable lead levels in the West Calumet Housing Complex.

"Copeland’s office showed appropriate urgency and leadership in promptly issuing letters to affected residents that it would be safest for them to relocate.

"But why did it take so long for this important information to land in the hands of East Chicago leaders and residents?"