The head of the Environmental Protection Agency toured an Indiana public-housing complex on Wednesday where roughly 1,000 people were ordered evacuated because of lead contamination, his first visit to a Superfund site that some environmental advocates called a major leadership test.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt joined Indiana leaders including Gov. Eric Holcomb, U.S. Sens. Joe Donnelly and Todd Young, and East Chicago's mayor for closed-door meetings in an industrial corridor of Indiana roughly 25 miles from downtown Chicago. Pruitt is the first EPA administrator to visit the site, according to EPA officials. He met with residents and toured the complex where evacuations began last year.
"The reason I'm here is because it's important that we restore confidence to the people here in this community that we're going to get it right," he said in a roughly 90-second statement to reporters. "They can have the confidence that their land, their health is going to be secure in the long-term."
He said next steps were discussed, but he did not provide details and refused to take questions.
The visit, while praised by elected officials of both parties, drew protests.
Local residents and activists questioned Pruitt's motives. They called for reassurance of a thorough cleanup, additional testing and long-term support of residents.
Pruitt has criticized the EPA for overreach and President Donald Trump's administration has taken steps to roll back stricter environmental regulations put in place over the past eight years. Also, Trump has proposed cutting the EPA's budget by 31 percent, almost one-third, and eliminating more than 3,200 jobs, about 20 percent of the agency's workforce of 15,000.
An EPA employees union criticized Pruitt for the proposed cuts, saying they would threaten public health. Union leaders called for a Wednesday meeting with Pruitt, who as Oklahoma's attorney general sued the EPA more than a dozen times to challenge regulations opposed by the fossil fuels industry.
The meeting between Pruitt and residents was "intense," with people providing emotional first-person accounts, according to Robert Kaplan, acting regional administrator for EPA's Region 5 office in Chicago.
"They made pleas for assistance, for help," he said. "You really could have heard a pin drop in that room."
Cleanup efforts are underway. The EPA has set up shop at a now-empty school. Crews are replacing underground lead water pipelines. Environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, want government officials to look at water quality citywide.
Two dozen families remain at the West Calumet Housing Complex, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some 330 were living there when the mayor called last summer for residents to be relocated. Officials began evacuating the 45-year-old complex, built on a site previously occupied by a lead-products factory, after soil tests found some yards with lead levels over 70 times the U.S. safety standard. Lead exposure, even at low levels, can cause nervous system damage and lowered IQs.
"We can't drink the water. The land we walk upon is contaminated. And we air we breathe is contaminated," said Thomas Frank, a resident of the community of roughly 30,000 who lives near the Superfund site.
Protesters snaked through streets of the largely black and Latino community where more than one-third of the residents live in poverty. They chanted and held signs reading, "East Chicago Demands Clean Water."
Eleven of the remaining families have found new homes and are in the process of moving, according to HUD. Thirteen other families are appealing their relocation offers from the city housing authority or have been given notice to move. Housing officials said their goal is to move out all families by May.
Resident Demetra Turner, 44, who left Chicago a decade ago for public housing in Indiana, said she was trying to find safe housing for the two children who live with her.
"We are truly in the fight of our lives," she said.