It’s happening again. Lead poisoning from historic contamination, children’s lives irreparably harmed — in a Midwestern low-income community overseen by the same EPA office that presided over the Flint lead crisis. Between this, Flint, and the Hoosick Falls PFOA contamination in upstate New York, the EPA has had a very bad year. So has DuPont, the company responsible for development of PFOA-laden Teflon products, and also one of the responsible parties named in the consent decree for clean-up of lead and arsenic contamination in the U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery Superfund Site (USS Lead).
But no one’s had it as bad as the 1,200 residents of the West Calumet Housing Project in East Chicago, Indiana — whose homes are actually located within the boundaries of the USS Lead Superfund site — and who have been told to relocate their households on short notice, due to critically unsafe levels of lead in neighborhood soil.
It’s been reported that two-thirds of those residents are children. Many of them are now lead-poisoned children. Nearly all of them have brown skin. I scroll through article after article, photos of black kids sitting on front steps, next to big EPA yard signs warning, “DO NOT play in the dirt or around the mulch.” With an illustration of a brightly-colored ball on fresh green grass, just to make the message clear.
What is it, exactly, that I want to say about all this?
My first impulse, just an echo of what has already been said: This never should have happened. Of course it shouldn’t have happened. We (they) should have known better.
Except that the West Calumet neighborhood was developed in the 1960s and 1970s, when the EPA was in its infancy, and before Superfund even existed. And I can tell you from personal experience in environmental remediation that stupidity was a pervasive problem in historic land use decisions. (Who builds a residential neighborhood on a former lead smelting site? The same type of planners who build a school and residential neighborhood over a filled, toxic canal that has been purchased for a dollar.)
But there’s more to this case than just the 20-20 hindsight of spackling over industrial blight. What I’m trying to say, is that when I read about 29 children with blood lead concentrations significantly over the CDC’s level of concern, all because they are living and playing in yards with lead levels containing as much as 227 times the lead limit allowed by the EPA, and then I think about how long this hazard has resided in the soils of this community, and how long that soil has been kicked up into dust by Goodwill-purchased sneakers, and tracked into hallways and wiped onto hand-me-down shirts tossed onto the backs of kitchen chairs before those children rifle through the pantry for something good to eat — when I think about what has happened here, and how long it’s really been happening, it triggers the same visceral anger I felt when I first started learning about PFOA.
Here’s why: Because both public health catastrophes reveal the same dysfunctional premise upon which our environmental health practices seem to rely (especially in low-income areas). Which is to say: Action need not be taken until harm has already been caused.
The EPA is quick to mention that action has, in fact, been taken. And yes, approximately 90 of 1,200 properties in the neighborhood were sampled during a three-year investigation started in 2003. Roughly half of the sampled properties contained lead-contaminated soil above the EPA’s standards, and 15 of those were contaminated enough to require time-critical removal action by the agency in 2008. These data were used to justify the neighborhood’s designation as a Superfund site in 2009, and an additional time-critical removal action was taken in 2011 for 16 additional properties. So yes, action was taken for some properties… sporadically, over a long period of time. My oldest daughter was born in 2003. A lot of childhood development happens during a 12-year period.
So one wonders what action was taken for those whose properties weren’t tested, or whose soil was tested but didn’t meet the threshold for emergency removal. A flimsy pamphlet on how to reduce your lead exposure? A recommendation that you wash your children’s hands and toys when they come inside from play? And one wonders how much action was taken to educate new residents of the neighborhood and housing project over that 10+ year period. A public notice for a public meeting?
Widespread testing to determine which soils needed removal was not initiated until 2014. In response to the shock and outrage recently expressed by residents of the West Calumet Housing Project over the sudden urgency of lead contamination in their neighborhood, Robert Kaplan, acting administrator for the EPA’s Great Lakes Region, told The New York Times that EPA “had in fact warned West Calumet residents for at least a decade to avoid the soil with public notices and community meetings.” Clearly a statement in the agency’s defense, but one which also implies that not only should residents have known about the lead, but that their ignorance about the matter may have played a role in their family’s health effects.
I can think of no greater insult beyond the trespassing of an industrial contaminant across the boundaries of my own cells and those of my children, than the suggestion that its preventable harm was solely my responsibility.
Kaplan’s remarks stink of a patriarchal you-should-have-known-better mentality, a scorn typically reserved for a scantily-clad sexual assault victim found in her pitiful shredded clothes. What did you expect, living in the projects? You knew that there was lead.
Let us be clear. They were warned for at least a decade to avoid the soil. Not “We regret that it has taken this long to take full action on this issue.” Or simply, “We’re sorry, we didn’t know it was this bad. We are working on fixing the problem.” The sad irony of Kaplan’s subtle judgment is this: Even if West Calumet residents had been scientifically knowledgable enough to deduce the hazards in which they lived, or civically savvy enough to be fully engaged in the Superfund public process, what could they have done? Where would they have gone? The state and federal government certainly wouldn’t have footed any bills on the possibility that they might be harmed. They would have certainly wanted some proof.
Proof which requires routine blood lead testing and consistent funding of such programs — an issue in Indiana, I suspect, considering its less-than-stellar commitment to public health funding. It’s quite the lesson in environmental injustice, on the interconnectedness of environmental degradation, public health, race, politics, and urban American culture. An ugly, despicable lesson, but one that must be dragged into the light.
Photo credit: nbcnews.com
I am an East-coaster and a West-coaster. I am an academic and a creative spirit. I am an environmental scientist who always wanted to write, and a writer with a nagging nostalgia for the complexities of environmental science. Above all, I am a mother — so whether I’m writing about the natural world, family, or place, I like to consider my work as environmental advocacy in the broadest sense.