Nonprofit legal groups help East Chicago residents living in environmental nightmare

Five years after placing the former site of the U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery in East Chicago on the National Priorities List because of lead and arsenic in the soil, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took two industrial giants to court to get help cleaning up the property.

The government agency was primarily trying to recover the costs for the remediation of the USS Lead Superfund site.

Now, the residents who have lived in homes and apartments built on the contaminated property are having similar money troubles because of the costs to remediate their lives. Since learning last summer that the place they call home is an environmental disaster, they have been scrambling to find new housing, struggling to get answers, and coping with the trauma that they and their children might have long-term illnesses and health problems.

Many, already on tight budgets, do not have any extra funds to get legal help.

“It’s almost impossible for the residents to achieve their goals without free legal services,” said Debbie Chizewer, attorney at the Environmental Advocacy Center of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. “People have environmental problems (and) they don’t have the resources to address them.”

Especially hard hit are people and families who live in the West Calumet Housing Complex, which is built on the Superfund site. When the city decided to demolish the facility, residents were told they had to uproot and find another place to live.

The Environmental Advocacy Center is among the legal organizations helping these residents and homeowners. The center is working to give residents a voice in the cleanup effort. The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago is ensuring residents forced to relocate are given the services and assistance they need. A coalition that includes the National Resources Defense Council is pushing the EPA to clean up lead contamination recently found in East Chicago’s drinking water.

In addition, the private bar has filed at least four lawsuits on behalf of the residents seeking damages for the health consequences.

Lake Superior Civil Division 2 Judge Calvin Hawkins maintains the situation in East Chicago is just as dire as Flint, Michigan, where high levels of lead in the water has invoked declarations of state and federal emergencies. But while everyone can see and understand the impact of brown-colored water, contaminated dirt doesn’t inspire the same outrage.

hawkins-calvin-mug Hawkins

The court actions might be a way to get relief for a situation that is not getting as much national attention.

“Whatever can be done to deal with the devastating issues of contamination and the ill-effects of the contamination on people is a positive in my mind,” Hawkins said.

‘There’s always work’

Indiana Legal Services Inc. is familiar with the West Calumet Housing Complex, having had an attorney regularly visit the facility even before the environmental crisis. But when the contamination entered the spotlight, the organization could not respond in a big way, in part, because federal regulations prohibit it from advocating or pursuing class actions and because, according Hawkins, an ILS board member, the attorneys on staff were already busy with traditional legal aid matters such as divorces and landlord-tenant disputes.

ILS Executive Director Jon Laramore conceded the organization has to examine how it can marshal its resources and spread work around among its eight offices when emergencies arise.

laramore-jon-mug Laramore

“I think we need to have the capacity and be better than we probably are right now at addressing these kinds of emergent needs,” he said. “We have to think of ourselves as a statewide program.”

Still, Laramore said ILS was able to see every resident from the contamination zone who came for help, and it was at community meetings educating residents. The nonprofit views its role as representing the tenants on an individual basis who have issues with housing vouchers, medical benefits or family turmoil caused by concern over a child who has lead poisoning.

Hawkins maintained even with the other legal advocacy organizations working on the issue, the agency can provide much-needed assistance.

“Sometimes, some kind of way, people fall through the cracks,” he said. “There’s always work.”

Giving residents a voice

From its effort to get money for the cleanup, the EPA was able to reach a consent decree with businesses linked to the contamination. The case, United States of America and State of Indiana v. Atlantic Richfield Company and E.I. DuPont De Nemours and Company, 2:14-cv-00312, was terminated in the U.S. District for the Northern District of Indiana in 2014 after the defendants agreed to pay about $26 million for the remediation.

However, little action appears to have followed the agreement and almost two years after the settlement, some residents are now asking the district court to get the government to do what it said it would do.

The Environmental Advocacy Center filed a motion to intervene on behalf of the residents. The EPA is fighting the move, arguing the action that led to the consent decree is not the right vehicle to “second-guess the EPA’s selection and implementation of remedial actions at the Site.”

Chizewer highlighted what happened when residents were not involved. Namely, the EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management kept silent about the level of contamination and the settlement agreement did not include remediation of an entire area in the site.

The Shriver Center is credited with halting a chaotic situation that exploded when the mayor gave residents 60 days to vacate the housing complex. The agency filed a civil rights complaint alleging the East Chicago Housing Authority’s relocation plan was discriminatory, violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act.

Before the end of 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the East Chicago Housing Authority entered into a voluntary compliance agreement that provides residents with additional assistance in finding housing, help in moving, lead testing on the homes they move to, and an extension of their housing vouchers.

Shriver Center staff attorney Emily Coffey said the initial panic that ignited when residents could not find housing has eased. A relocation plan is in place, and tenants are getting the information they need. Of the roughly 300 families that called the complex home, about 200 have relocated.

coffey-emily-mug Coffey

Although the agreement was signed before President Donald Trump took office, Coffey said, “I am hopeful that this will be something the new administration takes seriously.” However, on March 1, HUD tossed the ball back to the East Chicago Housing Authority, authorizing it to begin to forcibly relocate the remaining residents.

Coffey said such action would “virtually guarantee” that families will not move to healthy housing.

Tommie Smith is watching the events in East Chicago with a broken heart. She moved to the Indiana lakefront city as a young adult and loved that it was markedly different from her hometown in Mississippi.

For a time in the mid-1990s, her four children lived with their grandmother in the West Calumet Housing Complex. She does not believe her youngsters were harmed by the contamination, but as a mother and proud daughter of East Chicago, she understands the residents’ anguish.

“I grieve for the people,” said Smith, an ILS board member who now lives in Middlebury. “I think it’s really sad they have to go through this. People should have been informed so they could make a choice.”•

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets on
{{ count_down }}