Living on Lead

Living on Lead

The West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana was home to nearly 1,200 people, including 700 children, before residents were told to evacuate due to toxic levels of lead and arsenic in the soil. Residents first started noticing workers spreading mulch over bare spots of soil on their lawn. They were then urged to get their children screened for lead contamination while signs popped up throughout their neighborhood with warnings not to “play in the dirt or around the mulch.” Finally in July 2016, when Mayor Anthony Copeland realized the extent of the contamination, he ordered the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents of West Calumet Housing Complex so that the building may be demolished to rid the lead contamination. People had no idea that they’d been living on contaminated land for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, residents received Section 8 housing vouchers and were told they had 60 days to evacuate and secure housing for themselves.

In 1970, former East Chicago Mayor John Nicosia, received a $13 million federal grant to build hundreds of apartments and houses for low income residents. The housing complex was built in 1972 directly on top of a demolished lead smelter and old metal processing plant that had never been properly cleaned up. It is also located just north of USS Lead smelting plant. This was common practice in the region. When local officials needed land for public housing, the selected parcels were often situated among heavily industrialized sites. Therefore, it wasn’t long after West Calumet opened, that local government officials began hearing complaints about contamination.

Map of East Chicago showing West Calumet Housing complex in relation to the site of the former smelting plant from the NY Times.

In 1980, the Superfund Act (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act or “CERCLA”)  was enacted and gave broad federal authority to clean up toxic sites at the expense of industrial polluters. It secures funding from polluters to pay for the cleanup of the site.

When lead particles and a 21,000 ton toxic waste pile were found near the plant, the Indiana State Department of Health found U.S. Smelter and Lead (USS Lead) Refinery Site in violation of state law and in 1985 the site was first flagged as contaminated. USS Lead was also forced to close during this time. Blood screenings found that two of 53 children tested had elevated lead levels. This same year, U.S. Representative Peter Visclosky from Merrillville, wrote a letter to the EPA with concerns of “immediate danger” from toxic waste being spread into the air and water. He urged the EPA to initiate hazardous waste removal under the Superfund program. His efforts were unsuccessful and the EPA did not test West Calumet for lead until almost 20 years later. EPA officials claimed that a study on wind patterns suggested that limited debris from USS Lead was blowing into the housing complex.

There were efforts in 1991 to clean up the area when the EPA reached a settlement with USS Lead to pay a $55,000 fine for tarps to be thrown over the toxic waste pile left by the plant. However in 1992, USS Lead’s parent company went bankrupt and the site was again proposed to be on the Superfund National Priorities List because the company had “demonstrated an inability to finance appropriate remedial action by invoking bankruptcy laws.” In 1993, the EPA dropped its efforts and deferred the cleanup again to the state because of financial problems.

In 1997, a new school was being built near West Calumet and the EPA was concerned about increased lead exposure to schoolchildren associated with the construction.” The soil was tested again and lead levels were so high that they met the EPA’s current threshold for emergency action. 35% of young children were tested positive for lead exposure. Despite these disturbing numbers, there are no records of a more thorough environmental review and thus, the school was built. A lawyer from the  Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Bluhm Legal Center representing East Chicago residents said the EPA “just turned their heads so many times when there were signs about the endangerment of public health.”

Map of lead poisoning in East Chicago from the EPA.


The site was finally listed as a Superfund Site in 2009 and only then did the EPA formulate a plan to secure funding, investigate and execute remediation of the site. More extensive testing had been done between 2014 and 2016 and the data revealed some areas had lead levels of 91,000 parts per million in the soil and 32,000 ppm indoors. The EPA emergency threshold for cleanup is 400 ppm of lead in the soil. The top six inches of soil in resident’s backyards had up to 30 times more lead than the level considered safe for children to play in.

Robert A. Kaplan, the EPA’s acting regional administrator for the Great Lakes region, said that original clean up efforts were focused on the former smelting plant and not nearby neighborhoods. The EPA came up with a plan to remove the contaminated soil but Mayor Copeland decided to demolish the complex instead.

21% of children screened between 2005 and 2015 had registered lead levels that exceeded federal health guidelines. A two-year old living in the complex had lead levels of  33 milligrams per deciliter. This is more than five times the level that federal officials say justifies intervention. Lead attacks the brain and central nervous system and may cause comas, convulsions and even death. Children with extreme lead poisoning may be left with mental retardation and behavioral disorders. At lower levels of lead exposure, it may impact children’s brain development resulting in reduced IQ, attention span and increased antisocial behavior. It also causes anaemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to reproductive organs.

These risks spurred the mayor to demolish the housing complex rather than remove the contaminated soil. As of now, residents are still struggling to find permanent housing and about 300 families have moved away from the West Calumet Housing complex in the past year. East Chicago is now facing the largest relocation of families in the region since Chicago demolished 25,000 public housing units nearly two decades ago. The cleanup of the site drags on, eight years after it was added to the Superfund list and thirty years since Visclosky’s original complaint. Meanwhile, residents living nearby continue to bear the brunt of the health and environmental risks associated with lead exposure.

Written by Danielle Bayer

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