Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Nearly 1,000 Residents Displaced in East Chicago Lead Crisis

More than 30 years after initial reports of lead exposure, an East Chicago public
housing complex has been condemned- leaving economically
disadvantaged families uncertain about their future.

Residents of an East Chicago, Indiana community are still struggling to find homes after their complex was abruptly condemned September 1st by Mayor Anthony Copeland. The West Calumet Housing Complex sits on land contaminated with lead and arsenic at levels 228 times higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deems potentially hazardous to children. The public housing complex - with close to 1,000 residents - is facing the largest displacement of families East Chicago has seen in twenty years.

Compounding the immediate danger of toxic lead exposure is the financial burden placed on residents. Most West Calumet residents receive government rent assistance, or Section 8 vouchers, and thus cannot afford to simply pack up and move. The housing market in the area is already lacking, and many affordable options are in unsafe neighborhoods - a problem for the majority of West Calumet residents who either have children or are children.

"This is a crisis," Indiana state Senator Lonnie Randolph, said of the West Calumet Housing Complex. "These are people's lives. Some of them have been here for years."

The housing complex was built on top of an old copper smelter and next to a lead refinery plant in East Chicago during the late 1980s. Long time residents recall seeing piles of lead dust in the vacant industrial site next to the development well until 1992 when the EPA first recommended the site for cleanup through the Superfund National Priorities List. Yet, the project went through a series of agency exchanges and actual remediation work did not begin until 2009.

Yet with lead crises in other cities such as Flint, Michigan and Milwaukee, Wisconsin city and state officials have a new sense of urgency - and as such, East Chicago Mayor Copeland ordered an evacuation of West Calumet because he felt that the EPA's course of action wasn't enough.

"Life safety is No. 1," Copeland said. "You remove people from a hazardous situation and then you mitigate it."

So far, only 20 of 332 affected households have found new homes according to the Department of Housing and Development. Residents have been provided with tools to find adequate housing, but it's still difficult. Many tenants simply refuse to take Section 8 vouchers and that is legal under Indiana law. Moving costs and competition make it difficult for disadvantaged, displaced families to find somewhere good to live. For many, it is a choice between bad and worse; a choice not of their own, but brought upon them by neglect.

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