Questions Linger For Public Housing Residents Who Lived At A Superfund Site

Aug 7, 2017
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It was a year ago that more than 300 families living in public housing in northwest Indiana learned that they would have to move. That's because the land their houses were built on was contaminated with lead. Some moved far away, but others could only afford to live nearby, where Indiana Public Broadcasting's Annie Ropeik reports, lead is still a problem that residents fear could only get worse.

ANNIE ROPEIK, BYLINE: Here at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Ind., the EPA found lead contamination at 100 times above legal limits - 100 times. The complex and the surrounding neighborhood are in an EPA Superfund site. Officials have known for decades about hazards left here by old factories. But Akeeshea Daniels, who lived with her sons in the housing complex for 12 years, didn't know about any of it until last summer, when she got a confusing letter from the city's mayor.

AKEESHEA DANIELS: We were blindsided. We didn't know anything about this lead. And I felt like getting this letter - telling me I had to move - and I'm like, move where? I've never lived outside East Chicago.

ROPEIK: So your first thought is, where am I going to go?

DANIELS: Yeah, where are me and my kids going?

ROPEIK: The EPA planned to clean up the complex with its houses still standing and 1,200 residents still living inside. But the mayor didn't trust that plan and instead ordered the families out so the city could work on plans to tear down the complex later this year. Akeeshea Daniels joined those scrambling to find out what a lifetime of lead exposure had done to her family, especially her teenaged son.

DANIELS: He's living in a house full of lead. And I went into that complex with a healthy child.

ROPEIK: Daniels and others were being uprooted, amid chaos that included blood tests, calls to lawyers and posted EPA warning signs not to play in the dirt. The government gave families moving boxes, a list of landlords to call and Section 8 housing vouchers. But the only place many could use those vouchers was in the neighborhood - a still toxic area.

DANIELS: I'm not going to say I felt the safest settling, but it was home You know, it's not too far from where I grew up. It's not too far from my granny in case she needs me. So regardless of it being contaminated with lead, I was like, well, I'm already contaminated.

KATE WALZ: It is absolutely not the outcome we were hoping for.

ROPEIK: Kate Walz is a housing justice attorney at Chicago's Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. She worked on a federal fair housing settlement that sought more time and help for families to move out of the housing complex, to somewhere healthier outside the contaminated zone. But the settlement didn't come together in time to help everyone. Now Walz is pushing government officials here to make things right.

WALZ: Is there an opportunity, collectively, to reach out to those families again and support them to make a second move if they want - and if they want, into a healthier community?

ROPEIK: For now, hundreds of families from the now-empty West Calumet complex are scattered around the country without any follow-up communication. And the city still hasn't torn down the old complex. The 2,000 people living in the rest of this Superfund site worry that any demolition will spread more lead-laden dust.

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JIM CUNNINGHAM: The comments will be answered...

WALZ: At a contentious June meeting, Regional HUD Administrator Jim Cunningham collected comments but didn't answer questions on demolition plans. So far as he knows, HUD and the EPA have never before had to deal with this combination of problems - demolishing public housing on a Superfund site.

CUNNINGHAM: We need to probably do a better job of doing the whole big picture together, as opposed to doing it piecemeal. I'm thinking that's kind of probably what you heard tonight.

ROPEIK: For residents, that big picture includes everything the lead contamination has touched - their health, their homes and their neighborhood. By now, they were supposed to have answers to their demolition questions. They were supposed to have a follow-up meeting with HUD and get details from the EPA about other risks to their health. They're still waiting for all of those. For NPR News, I'm Annie Ropeik.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKE FOR FREE'S "PANORAMA SHAMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.