Government officials first found high levels of lead and arsenic at an East Chicago lead smelting plant in 1985. Thirty years later, after countless soil samples and elevated blood lead level tests, clean-up has begun. Why did it take so long?
Robert Kaplan oversees the Environmental Protection Agency’s work in the Midwest – he’s the Region 5 Administrator.
“I’m showing you an overhead aerial flight from 1949, and you’ve got the DuPont facility over here, you’ve got some other facilities over here, you’ve got two pre-existing neighborhoods,” Kaplan says.
He’s pointing to an aerial picture from 1949 – pointing out industries that operated in the Calumet neighborhood of East Chicago.
Today, it is more residential: single family homes, an affordable housing complex, and an elementary school.
It also has dangerous levels of lead and arsenic in its soil, which everyone agrees came from the former industries. The EPA has a record of this dating back 30 years, when the USS Lead smelting plant closed in 1985.
At that time the EPA and USS Lead began cleaning up the former smelting plant — but not the surrounding neighborhood.
Starting in 1991, the Indiana State Department of Health began testing children for elevated blood lead levels. Results weren’t published until 1998, but between 1998 and 2008, the state found 275 children with elevated levels.
Soil tests in the residential area, now home to an estimated 3,000 people, weren’t conducted until 2003.
Kaplan did not oversee the EPA’s work in the Midwest at that time.
“I really can’t speak to what happened between 1985 and 2003,” Kaplan says.
He took his current role earlier this year, after the last Region 5 administrator, Susan Hedman, stepped down during the Flint water crisis. Kaplan says, once the EPA started testing in Calumet, it found some extreme values.
“By extreme values I mean, for instance, I mean we found one 45,000 ppm. We also found in the subsurface one 91,000 ppm,” Kaplan says.
These values are 100 and 200 times too high.
In 2006, the EPA removed soil from 13 properties, and a clean up plan for two-thirds of the neighborhood was finalized in 2012.
Marc Lame is an environmental professor at Indiana University. He’s also worked as an advisor to the EPA and Arizona’s Department of Environmental Quality. He says this timing is actually par for the course for this type of public safety hazard, because lead in soil is harder to ingest than, for example, lead in water.
“It does take a little bit to have a significant exposure and things like that, so, I’m not saying that’s right, but I’m saying that this is more typical,” Lame says.
There are a lot steps in the process. In 2003, when high levels of lead and arsenic were measured in the residential neighborhood, USS Lead was bankrupt.
The site was added to the National Priorities List in 2008. Between then and 2014, the EPA needed to negotiate new clean up agreements with DuPont and Atlantic Richfield, companies that also operated lead facilities in the area.
Lame says the EPA also had budget cuts, those slow things down too.
Overall, he says the most important thing government agencies can do — at the local, state, and federal level — is involve the community.
“I tell my students that it’s a pain in the butt to try to always work with people on the outside to come up with what’s right for them. But if you don’t do it, in the long run it’s going to turn around and cost you,” Lame says.
The EPA did reach out. In the last 30 years, it mounted public information campaigns, public meetings, mailers and blood testing announcements. Many residents say they didn’t get this information. But the Kaplan has this report, and says the EPA did everything it could.
“If you go through it, these are all the fact sheets that we came up with, these are all the public meetings, and postcards that we sent,” Kaplan says. “You’re not going to reach everyone.”
The EPA’s cleanup plan is moving now. The agency just announced it will pay to start clean up on the last section of the neighborhood, at least until it can identify which companies can be held financially responsible.