East Chicago

The unfolding crisis of lead and arsenic contamination in the neighborhoods that make up East Chicago’s USS Lead Superfund site is the product of decades of failures of oversight at all levels of government and civil society.

In keeping with our commitment to environmental justice and the people of Northwest Indiana, the Hoosier Environmental Council has been working with local residents and many other organizations to help address this complex problem, assisting in raising and strengthening the community’s voice through research and policy advocacy.  We are proud to partner with organizations including the East Chicago/Calumet Coalition (the Community Advisory Group for the Superfund site), and the Community Strategy Group.

Understanding the USS Lead Site

map showing aerial view of a large residential neighborhood, divided into three zones by yellow lines.

EPA map of the Superfund site in East Chicago.

The USS Lead Superfund site covers three entire neighborhoods of East Chicago, Indiana (West Calumet, Calumet, and East Calumet), and has a total population of several thousand people. It extends from Chicago Ave. on the north to 151st Street on the south. Notable landmarks include Riley Park and the Carmelite Home. The contamination on the site is dominated by high levels of lead and arsenic in the soil.  Many other substances have also been detected at problematic levels, including cadmium, antimony, mercury, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Lead poisons every part of your body at every age. In newborns, symptoms of chronic lead exposure include low birth weight and premature birth. In children, symptoms include intellectual and behavioral disabilities, kidney problems, and anemia. In adults, symptoms include difficulties with short-term memory and concentration, depression, nausea, abdominal pain, peripheral neuropathy, and fatigue.

News coverage often focuses exclusively on the West Calumet public housing complex, which is in the process of a slow evacuation led by the city government. But the majority of site residents live in the adjacent neighborhoods of Calumet and East Calumet, which are collectively home to more than 800 homes and various businesses. EPA has no plans for any relocations from these neighborhoods.

The Contamination

There is a lot of lead in West Calumet, Calumet and East Calumet. Some lots in West Calumet tested above 90,000 ppm. The lead, along with the arsenic and other contaminants, comes from many sources:

  1. Some lead comes from past airborne contamination that settled into the soil. For nearly 100 years, operations including USS Lead, Anaconda, International Smelting & Refining, Eagle-Picher and US Reduction pumped enormous quantities of lead-contaminated dust into the neighborhood’s air which settled on the soil.

  2. Some lead comes from fill. These neighborhoods were built on what was once a dune-and-swale landscape: thin bands of dunes alternating with deep, muddy marshland. As has been documented elsewhere in the region, the swales were likely filled in with slag and other wastes from the nearby lead smelters and steel mills. The fill, which lies well beneath the surface layer of sand and only in those areas that were previously swales, has never been investigated by the EPA.

  3. Some lead comes from groundwater. Groundwater has long flowed north from the lead arsenate toxic waste on the DuPont property into the Calumet neighborhoods. Most of that toxic waste has now been removed, but the groundwater in the neighborhood, which seeps into many basements due to the high water table, was never addressed. Recent EPA testing has shown very high levels of lead and arsenic in many basements.

  4. Some lead originally arrived in dust, groundwater, or fill, but has now migrated inside people’s homes through dust, seepage or floodwater. So although there is no longer very much lead in the air outside, there may still be a lot of lead in the air indoors.

  5. As we have learned most recently, lead also arrives in the neighborhood through contaminated drinking water that exceeds the allowable threshold in approximately 40% of the homes tested. This contamination arises from corrosion of old lead pipes and service lines, apparently caused by inadequate levels of corrosion control in the water provided by the City. Although this contamination problem extends beyond the Superfund site, it is especially problematic there, because the impact of lead in drinking water is greater for people who already have high levels of lead exposure.

Why people still aren’t getting the help they need

Lead poisons every part of your body at every age. In newborns, symptoms of chronic lead exposure include low birth weight and premature birth. In children, symptoms include intellectual and behavioral disabilities, kidney problems, and anemia. In adults, symptoms include difficulties with short-term memory and concentration, depression, nausea, abdominal pain, peripheral neuropathy, and fatigue.

As is too often the case all around the country, the key decisions about this site were made without meaningful public involvement.

At all levels, the government continues to refuse to take the suffering of its people seriously.  EPA refused to relocate even the residents of West Calumet, who were living on concentrations of lead as high as 91,000 ppm; as a result, the relocation was left to be done by the city government, with predictably chaotic results. The city and state have given this issue serious attention only to the extent that they have faced unrelenting public pressure to do so.  Our duty is clear: keep the pressure on.

How HEC helps

HEC has been on the ground with logistical and research support since July 2016, working with partner organizations at the local, regional, and national levels. We are particularly glad to have been able to provide research assistance to the Northwestern University Law Clinic to support certain aspects of the clinic’s pathbreaking work on behalf of the residents’ right to intervene in the underlying Superfund litigation.

Most recently, HEC has partnered with the Community Strategy Group and local organizations including Blue Valpo to hold a bottled water drive on behalf of residents whose soil, seepage, and indoor dust contamination is now compounded by the discovery of lead contamination in their drinking water as well.  In addition, HEC Staff Attorney Samuel Henderson joined with affected residents to provide testimony in support of HB 1344 before the Indiana State House Environmental Affairs Committee in February 2017.

We will continue to look for opportunities to lend our assistance and voice to the affected people of the Calumet neighborhoods, and we invite you to join us.

How to learn more