EAST CHICAGO, Ind.
(AP) - The head of the Environmental Protection Agency toured an Indiana
public-housing complex on Wednesday where roughly 1,000 people were ordered
evacuated because of lead contamination, his first visit to a Superfund site
that some environmental advocates called a major leadership test.
Scott Pruitt joined Indiana leaders including Gov. Eric Holcomb, U.S. Sens.
Joe Donnelly and Todd Young, and East Chicago’s mayor for closed-door
meetings in an industrial corridor of Indiana roughly 25 miles from downtown
Chicago. Pruitt is the first EPA administrator to visit the site, according
to EPA officials. He met with residents and toured the complex where
evacuations began last year.
“The reason I’m
here is because it’s important that we restore confidence to the people here
in this community that we’re going to get it right,” he said in a roughly
90-second statement to reporters. “They can have the confidence that their
land, their health is going to be secure in the long-term.”
He said next steps
were discussed, but he did not provide details and refused to take
The visit, while
praised by elected officials of both parties, drew protests.
Local residents and
activists questioned Pruitt’s motives. They called for reassurance of a
thorough cleanup, additional testing and long-term support of residents.
criticized the EPA for overreach and President Donald Trump’s administration
has taken steps to roll back stricter environmental regulations put in place
over the past eight years. Also, Trump has proposed cutting the EPA’s budget
by 31 percent, almost one-third, and eliminating more than 3,200 jobs, about
20 percent of the agency’s workforce of 15,000.
An EPA employees
union criticized Pruitt for the proposed cuts, saying they would threaten
public health. Union leaders called for a Wednesday meeting with Pruitt, who
as Oklahoma’s attorney general sued the EPA more than a dozen times to
challenge regulations opposed by the fossil fuels industry.
The meeting between
Pruitt and residents was “intense,” with people providing emotional
first-person accounts, according to Robert Kaplan, acting regional
administrator for EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago.
“They made pleas
for assistance, for help,” he said. “You really could have heard a pin drop
in that room.”
Cleanup efforts are
underway. The EPA has set up shop at a now-empty school. Crews are replacing
underground lead water pipelines. Environmental groups, including the
Natural Resources Defense Council, want government officials to look at
water quality citywide.
Two dozen families
remain at the West Calumet Housing Complex, according to the U.S. Department
of Housing and Urban Development. Some 330 were living there when the mayor
called last summer for residents to be relocated. Officials began evacuating
the 45-year-old complex, built on a site previously occupied by a
lead-products factory, after soil tests found some yards with lead levels
over 70 times the U.S. safety standard. Lead exposure, even at low levels,
can cause nervous system damage and lowered IQs.
“We can’t drink the
water. The land we walk upon is contaminated. And the air we breathe is
contaminated,” said Thomas Frank, a resident of the community of roughly
30,000 who lives near the Superfund site.
through streets of the largely black and Latino community where more than
one-third of the residents live in poverty. They chanted and held signs
reading, “East Chicago Demands Clean Water.”
Eleven of the
remaining families have found new homes and are in the process of moving,
according to HUD. Thirteen other families are appealing their relocation
offers from the city housing authority or have been given notice to move.
Housing officials said their goal is to move out all families by May.
Turner, 44, who left Chicago a decade ago for public housing in Indiana,
said she was trying to find safe housing for the two children who live with
“We are truly in
the fight of our lives,” she said.