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The (Lead-Filled) Dirt on West Calumet

— September 7, 2016

What do you do with a piece of poisoned industrial land that is the site of the defunct former Anaconda Lead Product smelting operation, downwind from an old USS Lead industrial site and next to a DuPont site?  Why, you build an “affordable housing complex” there for low income minority families with children, right?  Isn’t that the first thing that comes to mind?  Apparently it did for the folks who built the West Calumet Housing Complex in 1972.  The site was known to have abnormally high lead levels in 1985 and became a federal Superfund site in 2009, but really, once you decide to build on a site like this one in West Chicago, Indiana, you have to know what’s coming, don’t you?

Of the 1000+ residents of this 346-unit complex, half to two thirds are children.  Children who play outside in the arsenic-poisoned lead-filled dirt, track that dirt in on their shoes, breathe the dirty, leaden dust in their homes, and who go on to have seemingly mysterious ailments like Attention Deficit Disorder, hyperactivity disorder, fevers, chills, vomiting, and headaches.  It’s not a stretch to think that perhaps these children will have less of a decent future than they could have had, had their homes not been built on the site of almost a century of lead smelting, or if they had at least been warned when evidence of absurdly high lead levels was detected in their blood.  What do you want to bet that someone will tell them one day that just like every other kid in America, they had an equal opportunity to succeed, but since equal outcomes are never guaranteed, they should have worked harder, bootstrapped more, or perhaps chosen their birth parents from a more advantageous socioeconomic group?

Indiana housing complex contaminated with lead, arsenic for years. Video courtesy of CBS Evening News.

As for who didn’t tell the residents about that little contamination problem, well, that’s clear as lead-filled mud, too.  The mayor of East Chicago, Anthony Copeland, blames the EPA for “flawed analysis” and says the agency “failed in its duty to protect human health.”  He claims that soil sample test results that showed “pervasive, severe, and extensive” contamination in 2014 were not shared with the city until May of 2016.  The Indiana State Department of Health points its finger at the local health department, saying it’s the locals’ job to convey test results to residents.  However, the city points back at the state, saying that the state had cut funding for the localities doing the testing back in 2011, and that while the city was consulting databases of test results, the state agency had not been updating the databases and was sending the blood test results to outdated email addresses instead.  It must be “comforting” to these families to have been saved from the bureaucracy by its own inefficiency, as Joe McCarthy would have said.

While the cost and responsibility for mitigating this toxic mess should rightly belong with the companies that made their money from smelting lead, they will only be charged to “clean up part of the residential portion of the USS Lead site.”  (One assumes that the rest of the costs involved, whether for cleaning up other “portions” of the site, caring for the people with lead related medical problems, moving expenses, and the general disadvantage to these children throughout their lives, will be externalized onto the government, the low-income residents of the complex, and society in general.)  The EPA’s plan was to remove the top two feet of soil (and put it in a landfill, in someone else’s backyard) and truck in other, presumably less contaminated soil to spread around.  (Hopefully nobody would decide they want to garden there someday, perhaps because they want to feed their children some fresh, nutritious vegetables.) However, while this decision was made in 2007, remediation has not yet begun, and the city housing authority has decided instead to demolish the complex and send the residents packing.  Sure, they’ll get vouchers to help them resettle into other public housing somewhere else, but will it cover all the costs they’ll have to pay?  Will their next public housing unit be built on another toxic site?  And what of the costs that are non-monetary, like destroying a community or forcing elders and disabled people to make moving arrangements?  And what are they going to build next on this poisoned patch of industrial land?

When will we, as a society, learn that except for maybe a couple sand islands in the South China Sea, not much land is being made anymore? If we keep sacrificing our finite, shrinking landbase for the long-term so that companies can profit in the short-term, we’ll have nothing.  At some point, we have to draw a line in the lead-contaminated sand and say “No More!” – for our people, for our environment, and for our future.

SHOCKER: Black Neighborhood Built On Toxic Lead: video courtesy of TYT Politics


Their Soil Toxic, 1,100 Indiana Residents Scramble to Find New Homes
West Calumet Housing Complex – East Chicago, Ind.
West Calumet Housing Complex Faces Wrecking Ball Due to High Lead Levels
‘It’s devastating’: 1,000 Indiana residents forced from homes over lead
Children Living at the West Calumet Housing are at High Risk for Lead Poisoning
EPA may change cleanup plan at contaminated West Calumet Housing Complex
National Lawyers Guild – Indiana Chapter’s statement
Equal Opportunity vs. Equal Outcome

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