It’s almost starting to become a cliche in 2016: That this poor community or that city is poised to become “the new Flint.” It’s not surprising that such a stunning case of governmental malfeasance — allowing residents of a mid-sized, economically challenged community to drink corrosive lead-poisoned water for nearly two years — would become the new low standard for environmental misconduct. And yet — as we’ve learned in recent months — many other communities with older lead pipes are prone to the same type of pollution and neglect, even though lead poisoning has been linked to permanent brain damage in children.
But ancient water pipes aren’t the only way that children can become exposed to and slowly poisoned by lead. For much of the 20th Century, lead smelters and plants that used the toxic substance for batteries or other materials were scattered across America — typically right next to the same kind of low-income communities where one tends to find lead pipes or heavy use of lead-based paint. Cleaning up these environmental blights has been a low priority for government; occasionally, poorer families are moved right on top of these contaminated sites.
This week, Think Progress carried the story of such a community, East Chicago, Indiana, which is wedged between the industrial wastelands of the Windy City and the smokestacks of other industrial communities that line Lake Michigan. Here, city officials constructed a low-income housing project on the remains of a former lead-producing factory, with sad and predictable results:
Akeeshea Daniels first suspected something was off when her two toddlers came down with scarlet fever. It was 2004, and she just moved her family into a spacious public housing complex in East Chicago, Indiana.
“I looked it up. Scarlet fever hasn’t been a problem since the ‘50s,” she said. “It was something straight out of a history book.” But when she brought her concerns to the East Chicago Housing Authority?—?the manager of her public housing complex— she was brushed off. “They told me it was my fault for not cleaning well enough,” she said. “I had toddlers! I was cleaning every day. And then things kept happening.”
The next decade was rife with mysterious family health issues: Ear infections, upper respiratory problems, throat infections. Her son was put on ADHD medication when he was seven. At any time, Daniels or one of her three children were sick with something they couldn’t kick. Just last month, Daniels took her now-18-year-old son to the emergency room for severe stomach cramps, and left with no better understanding of what was wrong.
It took years for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and local officials to acknowledge that the soil surrounding the homes of Daniels and her neighbors is contaminated with lead and arsenic and that the residents would have to be relocated, the structures demolished.
In 1973, U.S.S. Lead began dismantling car batteries to recover lead parts. Discarded materials saturated the soil with battery acid. Anaconda Lead has a shorter legacy — after shutting down in 1936, the factory’s buildings were demolished and cleared, leaving only lead-rich soil in its wake.
And then the city replaced it with an expansive, 346-unit low-income public housing complex.
It wasn’t until U.S.S. Lead shuttered in 1985 that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management tested soil in surrounding areas for contaminants. Out of the 14 locations tested in Anaconda’s former property, six had soil with lead levels at 11,000 ppm. EPA’s maximum level for lead content in residential areas is 400 ppm.
In 1992, shortly after U.S.S. Lead declared bankruptcy, the EPA proposed the area be included on the Superfund National Priorities List—the EPA’s to-do list of toxic environmental areas in dire need of decontamination—but it was mysteriously rejected. After testing the soil directly on the WCC property again in 2009, and finding equally high levels of lead, the 74 acres of Calumet neighborhood were finally deemed a Superfund site.
The residents were the last to know. Some heard murmurs of neighbors having their yards tested, but the city said the EPA did not investigate beyond the nine areas tested for contamination in 2009.
It’s certainly understandable why Think Progress would compare East Chicago to Flint. Daniels is just one of dozens of residents of the housing project whose health problems and pleas for help were ignored. I would just note that the common element here is not so much lead as neglect. Big corporations and careless elected officials dump on the poorest communities — without strong political representation or access to attorneys — because they know they can get away with it. That’s why an environment justice movement is finally sweeping this country, but there are so many decades, and so many layers of injustice to roll back. The problem isn’t finding “the next Flint.” There are already scores of them.
Find out more about the lead poisoning of East Chicago from ThinkProgress: https://thinkprogress.org/40-years-in-the-dark-public-housing-residents-have-been-living-on-toxic-soil-for-decades-4c6c3927edba#.vnz15gfsw
Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice
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