East Chicago Lawsuit

Jan 12, 2017

Seven residents of the lead and arsenic–polluted East Chicago, Indiana neighborhood want to join the Environmental Protection Agency’s lawsuit against the companies paying for the cleanup. The residents argue neither party represents their interests, and they want more say. David Chizewer is one of their attorneys—he says its an uncommon tactic, but an important step.

“So that they can have a voice in any changes that need to be made to the clean up process, because, as it’s gone forward so far, it’s been inadequate.”

One thing residents find inadequate? Time. The Environmental Protection Agency named the Calumet neighborhood of East Chicago a Superfund site almost 8 years ago. Only the most polluted areas become Superfund sites. This neighborhood’s soil is contaminated with lead and arsenic over 200 times higher than the level the federal government considers “reasonable.” Around 3,000 people live in the neighborhood.

The EPA began cleanup over seven years later, this past fall. The federal agency denied multiple requests for an interview for this story.

Debbie Chizewer is another attorney for the residents and says the EPA was required to do more testing before finalizing its cleanup plan.

“Those requirements would’ve included evaluating the drinking water inside peoples’ homes, it would’ve evaluated—included evaluating—indoor lead dust, it would’ve included evaluating exterior based lead paint—and none of that happened.”

That plan was finalized in 2012.

In 2016, the EPA did clean lead contaminated dust from residents’ homes. And it tested drinking water in 43 homes. While 18 of these had unsafe levels of lead in the water, no other homes are scheduled for testing.

It’s important to note here that the lead in the water is from old lead pipes, not the lead in the soil, but Debbie Chizewer says that doesn’t matter—residents still need the information.

“So that they understand on a site specific basis, what are the exposures of this community.”

I met Byron Florence back in September and went to visit him again in December. He lives in the same zone as the residents filing the lawsuit, but he’s not a part of that effort. Like the first time we met, Florence called up some neighbors who wanted to talk, too. One of them is Ralph Crews. He’s lived here for 74 years. Crews says officials have known about the lead contamination for decades.

“They knew back in the 70s when they built those homes there. It was contaminated. It was a lead factory there. And they built right on top of it. If that’s not crazy, what is.”

Florence agrees with his friend.

“They wouldn’t have done that in no other suburban area in this country. But it was black, Hispanic neighborhood—throw it right there! That’s who we servicing. They didn’t check the tests, they didn’t care, and then when they found out…hell, that’s too late.”

State and federal agencies have recorded lead contamination in the area for at least 31 years. Though the EPA chose not to comment in this story, it did direct Indiana Public Broadcasting to court documents related to the case. It can take years for officials to determine if a site so dangerous it needs federal help. Then, in the Midwest, it takes an average 16 more years for the EPA to finalize a clean up plan. In comparison, the East Chicago process was quick – the EPA designed the cleanup plan in 4 years.

In court documents, the EPA opposes the residents’ motion to join the suit. It argues it will slow the clean up even more, that residents have other ways to comment, and that the court cannot allow a citizen challenge while cleanup is underway.

Residents filed a response, and lawyer David Chizewer says the EPA has misinterpreted the law, and they do have a right to join the case.

The companies responsible for paying for the cleanup, DuPont and Atlantic Richfield, did not file a response to either motion.