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Lawyers Request EPA Intervention For Lead In East Chicago Water

The same group who requested federal assistance for Flint, Michigan, is now stepping in for East Chicago, Indiana.

East Chicago's Calumet neighborhood is an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.

Photo: Annie Ropeik (IPB News)

East Chicago's Calumet neighborhood is an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.

A group of lawyers is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to issue an emergency order about lead contamination in drinking water in East Chicago, Indiana.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, worked with residents and their lawyers to file the petition for emergency action with the EPA.

A similar NRDC request led to EPA intervention in Flint, Michigan last year. East Chicago’s drinking water has not been found to be as severely contaminated, but NRDC attorney Anjali Waikar says the two situations do have some things in common.

“In the Flint case, EPA was aware that the city and the state had not been adequately treating the water; EPA was aware of the presence of lead service lines; EPA was aware of elevated lead level testing at people’s homes,” Waikar says. “All of those factors are present here in East Chicago.”

And in Flint, Waikar says, the EPA found it should have acted on all that information sooner than it did.

The EPA declined to comment for this story by deadline. But it has done some sampling in East Chicago already. The EPA released data late last year showing elevated lead levels in the drinking water of 18 homes in the city’s Calumet neighborhood.

It’s part of the agency’s USS Lead Superfund site, where the soil is contaminated with lead and arsenic over 100 times the legal limit.

The EPA says East Chicago’s contaminated water is not related to the contaminated soil – rather, the lead in the water is leaching out of the city’s old lead drinking water pipes. The city declined to comment for this story by deadline, but it maintains that its drinking water is in compliance with state regulations.

The EPA has also previously said it doesn’t plan to expand water testing in East Chicago. It’s told residents they should be using water filters, which residents are currently paying for themselves – along with bottled water.

The EPA also directed the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to increase corrosion controls in the city’s water supply, to protect against leaching from lead pipes.

“Those are good steps, but they’re not sufficient, because it takes time for the water to be treated,” Waikar says. “And unless and until those anti-corrosion measures are effectively working, and until we have proof that the lead levels have been reduced in the city, the water’s not safe to drink.”

The NRDC’s petition asks the EPA to start providing filters and bottled water to residents, or to make local or state officials do so. It also calls for more water testing and oversight of long-term solutions.

Local and state officials have discussed replacing the city’s lead pipes, but it’s an expensive proposition, and they haven’t taken action so far.

In an NRDC press release, East Chicago resident Sherry Hunter said, “The disastrous effects of lead in our soil have already taken a toll on our community. But lead coming through our taps takes this mess to a whole new, unacceptably horrible level. We live in America; we should not be left drinking poison while officials ponder away at long-term solutions. If the city and state cannot help us quickly, it is time for the federal government to help its citizens.”

According to federal guidelines, the EPA has broad, discretionary authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act to intervene when it can show that contaminated drinking water poses an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to human health, and that other authorities haven’t done enough to respond to that threat.

There’s no timeline for the EPA to respond to the NRDC’s petition. But Waikar sees this as a test of promises she says the agency’s new administrator, Scott Pruitt, made during his confirmation hearing “that EPA will step in if the city and the state aren’t doing enough.”

“This is a community that has been bearing the brunt of multiple exposures, and now EPA actually has something to do about it,” Waikar says. “This is really the first opportunity for [President Donald Trump's] administration to take real leadership on these issues.”

In a letter sent Thursday, members of Indiana’s Congressional delegation invited Pruitt and newly minted Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson to visit East Chicago.

During Carson’s confirmation hearing, he told U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) that he’d continue HUD’s work on relocating East Chicago residents from a contaminated public housing complex inside the Superfund site.

Donnelly joined U.S. Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) and U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Gary) in asking Pruitt and Carson to come to East Chicago for “a first-hand perspective of the challenges facing the community” to help guide HUD and EPA response efforts.

The EPA released a statement in response to Indiana Public Broadcasting’s request for comment.

“EPA has received the petition requesting that the agency take emergency action under the Safe Drinking Water Act in East Chicago, Ind[iana]. EPA will review the petition and will continue to work with the city and state to protect the health of East Chicago residents,” an EPA spokesperson said in a statement.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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