Governor issues disaster order over East Chicago lead

Gov. Eric Holcomb on Thursday issued a state disaster declaration over East Chicago's lead contamination problem, nearly two months after his predecessor rejected the city's request.

Holcomb approved the 30-day emergency declaration, saying state agencies will focus on helping find new homes for about 100 residents remaining at a polluted public housing complex and discussing options with new federal agency leaders.

The governor said he hopes the declaration will accelerate coordination among local, state and federal agencies. Other plans include directing $2 million toward demolition of the West Calumet Housing Complex, along with seeking federal assistance for soil cleanup and the replacement of lead water pipes throughout the industrial city along Lake Michigan.

"What I want to do is make sure we get this right," Holcomb said. "Putting a 30-day shot clock on our efforts, I think, will help us not just corral, but focus all of our efforts, both the federal and state efforts, and the local efforts on it right now."

East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland sought the disaster designation from then-Gov. Mike Pence, who is now vice president. The mayor was hoping it would make more state programs available to residents dealing with the contamination, which has forced more than 1,000 people to move out of the West Calumet complex.

Pence's office said in December that the declaration wasn't needed because federal and state agencies were already addressing the situation.

Last summer, Copeland ordered the evacuation of the 40-year-old public housing complex, where about 700 children lived, because of severe soil contamination. The site was once home to a lead products factory. Some yards had lead levels more than 70 times the federal safety standard. Federal officials have given residents until the end of March to find new homes.

East Chicago City Attorney Carla Morgan told The (Northwest Indiana) Times that local officials appreciated Holcomb's decision.

"We're working closely with the governor's office to figure out how to best help our residents," Morgan said.

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