Pruitt visits East Chicago's toxic neighborhoods – while slashing funding for lead control, cleanup

Sarah Vogel

Scott Pruitt, the deeply controversial head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is off to East Chicago today – a trip that coincides with his plan to strip away many of EPA’s pollution limits and to dramatically cut his agency’s budget.

The hypocrisy of it all hasn’t been lost on community activists who fought for years to try to protect East Chicago children living atop a toxic Superfund site from lead poisoning.

Not only is the Trump administration eliminating federal funding for lead detection and mitigation programs – it’s also asking Congress to slash funding for Superfund cleanup by a whopping 30 percent. These and other EPA cuts have ramifications not just for East Chicago, but for polluted communities nationwide.

A poster child for environmental injustice

A small city in the northwestern corner of Indiana, East Chicago may be the place that best illustrates the importance of having a strong EPA, and the safeguards it enforces, to protect our kids’ health.

The city is the home of USS Lead, a former industrial site contaminated with lead and arsenic – two extremely hazardous chemicals that can have devastating impacts on young children.

Fifty-one percent of residents in East Chicago are Hispanic and 43 percent African-American. More than one-third, 36 percent, fall below the poverty line. Such demographics are very much part of the USS lead site story; to this day, poor people of color in the United States are more likely to live in or near polluted areas.

In 2009, USS Lead was named one of the most contaminated sites in the country. It’s a particularly alarming situation because a housing complex, home to more than 1,000 people, including 600 children, was built on top of the former lead smelter.

Making things worse, when the EPA tested residents’ tap water [PDF] last year, 40 percent of the homes showed high levels of lead due to a separate problem of insufficient use of corrosion control in water pipes.

Gov. Mike Pence: This is no emergency

The local government sought a declaration of emergency from then-Governor Mike Pence, which he rejected. In February of this year, his successor Gov. Eric Holcomb successfully granted the disaster request Pence had denied.

This emergency action doesn’t deflect the bigger challenge posed by the Trump administration’s proposed cuts, which directly affect lead poisoning prevention programs and children’s health.

The Trump White House has also called into question EPA’s mandate to rehabilitate toxic lands. The president’s proposed budget cuts Superfund – the program responsible for the East Chicago cleanup – by $330 million.

East Chicago may catch a break because it has settlement funds to move forward, but there are many other sites nationwide that would be left with toxic land and water, and no support for remediation.

Pence, meanwhile, has yet to visit the Indiana neighborhoods at the center of the lead crisis.

Is Congress taking notes?

Unfortunately, the Pruitt-Trump budget would also cut the EPA’s enforcement office by 31 percent, letting many corporate polluters off the hook.

This office is responsible for holding the companies accountable for their share of the cleanup, such as a 2014 action that forced Atlantic Richfield and DuPont to spend an estimated $21 million at the East Chicago Superfund site.

Perhaps we should thank Administrator Pruitt for visiting East Chicago today. It may not have been his intention, but he’s showing the whole country how much we need an EPA strong enough to protect our health and to fight back against big polluters. We can only hope Congress won’t miss the lesson. 

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