East Chicago resident Sara Jimenez, 59, remembers the moment she stopped feeling safe in her home. In July, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent her a letter that said the soil in her front and back yards contained high concentrations of lead and arsenic. Officials from the EPA had taken soil samples more than a year previously, but Jimenez hadn’t heard from them since.
“I was angry and confused,” Jimenez said. “I thought we had regulations in place to protect us from pollution like this.” Her home once held promise, but pollution has since slashed property values and endangered residents.
As East Chicago faces an environmental disaster, the EPA faces drastic cuts to programs that protect communities from toxic waste. President Trump’s proposed budget includes a 42 percent cut to the cleanup of industrial pollution and a 23 percent cut to enforcement.
East Chicago is a predominantly black and latino community marred by dangerous pollution from steel and smelting industries. Jimenez lives about a mile from the USS Lead smelting facility, now an EPA Superfund site. Her home is one of 120 the EPA named for a round of cleanups this spring.
“When my husband and I bought our home in 1999, we were not told that the soil was contaminated,” Jimenez said. In the years since, Jimenez and her husband have invested tens of thousands of dollars into home improvements. Jimenez said that, based on data from the county assessor, the value of their home dropped in half after the area was labeled a Superfund site in 2009.
“I get so angry. You know your dream is you buy a house, and if you want to sell it, you want to know you can sell it with at least the value you put into it,” said Jimenez. “We put a patio on the back. We invested in a new roof. My husband worked hard for so many years. Now we have nothing. Nothing.”
Since finding lead and arsenic concentrations in the soil, EPA officials have has gone door to door warning children not to play in the dirt. Some 20 percent of children under the age of seven living in the western part of the Superfund site had high levels of lead in their blood.
Closer to the smelting facility, lead contamination is especially severe. Authorities plan to demolish the West Calumet Housing Complex, which was built on top of a former lead smelting plant near the USS Lead facility. West Calumet is home to more than 1,100 people, mostly children. The East Chicago Housing Authority plans to relocate the remaining residents to temporary housing next week. Residents are asking to stay until the end of the school year, but officials say it’s necessary to evacuate the complex now.
Research shows that there is no safe level of lead in the blood. Exposure to even small amounts of lead can cause irreversible brain damage, leading to lower IQ. The risks are especially high for children and pregnant women. Miscarriage, behavioral abnormalities and cancer have all been linked to lead or arsenic exposure.
“My mother has had several miscarriages,” said Alexandra Watkins, 31, a psychology student at Purdue University Northwest who grew up near the smelting facility. “My sister has some emotional problems. Lots of people have died of cancer. I’ve always been looking to understand why.”
“States don’t have the funding to do testing or move people,” said Watkins. “It’s very scary to think [EPA] budget cuts could leave this up to the states, and the EPA could be removed entirely.”
Government officials have known about the risks associated with the USS Lead Superfund site for decades. In 1985, the EPA sampled soil around the USS Lead facility after the Indiana Health Department found 53 children in West Calumet with elevated levels of lead in their blood.
Officials took one soil sample at the northwest corner of the West Calumet Housing Complex, the point farthest from the USS Lead facility. The sample registered a concentration of lead below the EPA’s limit. Federal officials did not sample the soil in the housing complex for more than two decades.
It wasn’t until 2009 that the site was officially added to the Superfund list, leading to more comprehensive cleanup and testing, and the discovery of a new risks.
In the course of testing drinking water at the Superfund site, officials found that lead from pipes had contaminated the water. In January, the EPA announced that as many as 90 percent of the homes in East Chicago could have lead water lines. The EPA recommends residents assume their lines are contaminated and use certified filters.
East Chicago is a reminder of what is at stake in the battle over the EPA’s budget.
The proposed cuts threaten to further erode trust in the agency. “The EPA permitted the pollution that led to this crisis under their existing authority,” said local artist and activist Frank Thomas. “A weaker EPA is not the solution.”