At least 30 years of inadequate oversight and missed opportunities resulted in lead poisoning and elevated blood lead levels in children living at a low-income housing complex near a Superfund site in East Chicago, according to a federal report.
Other public housing facilities in Indiana and across the nation could face similar contamination threats due to their proximity to contaminated sites and an ineffective environmental review process from the federal agency that regulates public housing.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of the Inspector General released a report in February evaluating decades of HUD actions at the West Calumet Housing Complex, a public housing development built atop the former site of a facility that produced white lead, a highly toxic ingredient used in lead paint.
The HUD inspector general concluded that HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing and other federal, state and local authorities for decades failed to identify lead contamination as a threat, exposing thousands of East Chicago families to irreversible neurological damage, kidney and heart problems and reproductive toxicity.
“[HUD and other authorities] missed opportunities to identify site contamination and notify [West Calumet Housing Complex] residents of those hazards in a timely manner. The missed opportunities placed the residents’ health and safety at risk and contributed to the lead poisoning of children living in WCHC,” the report stated.
The report said HUD did not properly conduct environmental reviews for decades, despite signs of lead exposure existing at the complex since 1985.
One of the attorneys who represented residents living at the West Calumet Housing Complex said the report’s findings were unsurprising simplifications of a legacy of failure by the agency.
“The key takeaway that the inspector general seems to be making is that HUD missed opportunities when they should have been alerted to this problem, that there are many different times over this span of multiple decades where HUD should have been alerted or could have been alerted,” said Emily Coffey, staff attorney at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law in Chicago. “What it is not doing that I think it should do is put the onus on HUD, that HUD has to investigate whether or not the housing that they are subsidizing is safe.”
In 1968, the East Chicago Housing Authority chose the former site of the Anaconda Lead Products facility, which was built in the early 1900s, to become the future home of the West Calumet Housing Complex.
HUD approved funding for the complex’s construction that same year. The U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery Inc. and other associated facilities bordered the site.
The approval predated the National Environmental Policy Act, signed into law in 1970. NEPA, one of the nation’s first environmental laws, later required an environmental impact assessment as part of the HUD approval process.
According to the report, HUD did not attempt to perform its first environmental review until 2003, and some HUD officials said they did not become aware of lead exposure at the housing complex until 2016, three decades after the first signs of contamination were found by other agencies.
A LONG RECORD OF CONTAMINATION
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first found evidence of lead contamination from the U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery Inc. site, located just across a street from the West Calumet Housing Complex, in 1980. The contamination spread to neighboring areas through toxic flue dust and runoff into drainage ditches.
The Indiana State Department of Health, then known as the State Board of Health, performed a soil lead survey in 1985 and found areas beyond the confines of the USS Lead facility site with more than 1,100 milligrams per kilogram of lead, an amount hundreds of times more than the current state lead action level.
That same year, ISDH and the East Chicago Health Department tested the blood lead levels of 53 children, two of whom were found to have moderately elevated blood lead levels.
The agencies said they could not draw definitive conclusions about the extent of contamination at the site.
In 1992, the EPA proposed adding the USS Lead facility, not including the residential areas immediately to the north, to the National Priorities List, a list of the nation’s most contaminated sites. The edge of the facility’s northern boundary is only about a tenth of a mile from the West Calumet Housing Complex.
Between 1990 and 1997, the Indiana Childhood Lead Prevention Program collected blood samples from children living in the Calumet neighborhood of East Chicago and found that nearly 31% of those children had blood lead levels above the 10 micrograms per deciliter considered a “level of concern” by the state.
The state then asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for help conducting an exposure investigation at residential areas surrounding the USS Lead site, including the West Calumet Housing Complex.
As a result, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management in July 1997 found elevated lead levels in soil samples collected from Carrie Gosch School System property neighboring the West Calumet Housing Complex.
The disease registry collected blood samples and reported that 30% of kids age 6 and younger who were tested had elevated blood lead levels. In a report made available to the public in 1998, the registry recommended the site be remediated.
A DECADE OF FAILURE
Despite other agencies becoming aware of and expanding their contamination investigations, HUD did not perform its own environmental review for five more years.
When HUD eventually began conducting environmental reviews, the findings were so inaccurate they delayed HUD’s identification of contamination at the site for more than a decade.
According to the inspector general’s report, the Indianapolis field office of HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing incorrectly completed four environmental reviews for the West Calumet Housing Complex between 2003 and 2014, allowing the East Chicago Housing Authority to perform renovation projects at the complex without discovering the contamination.
HUD investigators found that the Indianapolis field office did not search government records or seek out historic uses of the site, an omission that led to inspectors incorrectly marking reviews to say that the complex was more than 3,000 feet away from a hazardous site and that waste sites were not visible from the property.
One unnamed HUD official admitted to investigators he was unaware of the completion of any environmental reviews for the complex, despite signing off on a 2004 report completed by HUD staff.
“The reviews are supposed to be proactive. Whether they’re done correctly, whether they’re done with enough rigor is, I think, a separate question,” said Coffey. “The intention of these reviews is so that the government agencies know whether or not there’s issues in the environment that need to be further investigated. They’re only happening at this influx, and I think that’s a problem.”
While HUD struggled to complete environmental reviews, evidence of contamination at points close to or on West Calumet Housing Complex grounds mounted.
The agency remained blind to the movement around the WCHC.
In 2006, the EPA began testing residential yards northeast of the USS Lead site, finding sites with up to 3,000 parts per million of lead, more than twice the level needed for immediate removal actions.
The EPA held public meetings notifying people living in the residential areas across the street from the WCHC about the risk of lead contamination and the site’s long pollution history.
The USS Lead facility was officially added to the National Priorities List in 2008, and the EPA began removing thousands of tons of contaminated soil from homes neighboring the West Calumet Housing Complex.
“We should not be waiting for kids to have elevated blood lead levels to act, whether it’s to move them or to do more work to protect them. We should be doing environmental reviews, improving the inspections in a way that accounts for the exterior harms and risks so that we prevent it in the first place,” said Debbie Chizewer, a managing attorney at Earthjustice who previously represented East Chicago residents living near the USS Lead site.
In 2009 and 2010, employees from the East Chicago Housing Authority were present at meetings where the possibility of lead contamination at the West Calumet Housing Complex was discussed.
That information was not relayed to HUD. East Chicago officials have not responded to IER’s request for more information about communication lapses with HUD.
As HUD’s ignorance of contamination at the West Calumet Housing Complex continued, the City of East Chicago began to look toward a future without the complex.
A 2010 report on the conditions at the complex found that it was reaching the end of its useful life and future repairs would be “too costly” for the East Chicago Housing Authority.
The housing authority began considering demolishing the complex and turning the property into a mixed-income waterfront neighborhood.
The EPA continued finding contamination and, in 2011, undertook a series of steps to inform the public and local authorities about possible contamination, including holding more community meetings on the Superfund designation, placing the Superfund administrative record at the East Chicago Public Library and putting out notices in local newspapers.
The agency also established a website for the USS Lead Superfund site and advertised a toll-free number to answer questions about the site.
Transcripts of public meetings held in 2012 show the EPA shared information about the WCHC being situated atop the former Anaconda Lead facility. Officials from IDEM and the East Chicago Health Department were present in at least one meeting, as were East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland and former City Council member Robert Battle.
The link between the information and HUD was established many times throughout the years, with the information being available to anyone who sought it.
While HUD fumbled its environmental reviews, residents reported health problems typically associated with lead poisoning.
“I believe testing (medical) needs to be done for those of us who are lifelong residents to see if we have acute lead/arsenic poisoning affecting our health. I’m the one who commented on having health symptoms/illnesses that reflect acute poisoning. Anemia, dizziness/vertigo, stomach/gastro, diarrhea, headaches, lack of sleep, fatigue, arthritis, tingling/numbness of limbs. I have them all,” one unidentified East Chicago resident wrote the EPA.
The EPA was unable to breach the bubble that existed around HUD officials while East Chicago residents suffered from the effects of contamination.
The City of East Chicago took over environmental review duties in 2015 and 2016. The city hired a consultant to complete the reviews, based on a mistaken interpretation of HUD regulations from HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing. The consultant’s environmental reviews did not follow federal law or HUD regulations, delaying the identification of the lead threat even longer, despite city officials already having knowledge of possible contamination at the housing complex for years.
The EPA told city officials on May 24, 2016 that it found elevated lead levels and arsenic in soil samples at the complex.
THE END OF THE WEST CALUMET HOUSING COMPLEX
In July 2016, the East Chicago Housing Authority, supported by the city’s mayor, submitted an application to demolish the complex, citing “unsafe environmental issues” on the property.
A month later, new data about contamination at the complex began sluicing through.
The ISDH found evidence of dangerous amounts of lead contamination inside WCHC housing. Blood lead testing revealed that children living at the West Calumet Housing Complex continued having elevated blood lead levels despite contaminated soil removals.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded that soil-based contamination at the housing complex was likely the cause of the elevated blood lead levels.
“These observations across almost 20 years demonstrate a consistent pattern of elevated blood lead levels in young children living in the West Calumet Housing Complex,” the registry wrote. “Given the recent verification by the Indiana State Department of Health Lead Inspectors that lead-based paint is not present in these units, it is likely that exposure to soil-based lead contamination in WCHC is the explanation for this consistent pattern of elevated blood lead levels.”
After the finding, the EPA began relocating the approximately 1,000 housing complex residents to find and remove contaminated soil at the complex. Residents were told they could move to other public housing units or receive a Housing Choice Voucher to find private housing in East Chicago.
In September 2017 HUD approved the demolition of the complex and only then completed an accurate environmental site assessment that finally revealed a century of contamination to the agency.
The West Calumet Housing Complex was demolished in 2018.
Zone 1 of the USS Lead Superfund site, the part that contained the complex, was remediated and later delisted from the National Priorities List. The area has been rezoned by East Chicago officials and sold.
HUD officials at the national level said lessons were learned during the aftermath of the toxic West Calumet Housing Complex handling, and new housing complexes would face more scrutiny.
“Today, if a site such as West Calumet was to be proposed, during the environmental review process it would come up that there’s a potential for problems due to proximity to NPL sites, or Superfund sites, or that the site itself, based on old siting maps, was part of some industrial complex and we would acquire a much greater look at what environmental conditions could impact the property,” Bruce Haber, director of the HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes’ Programs and Regulatory Support Division said during a lead dangers panel.
Haber said a memorandum of understanding developed by HUD and the EPA would allow the agencies to coordinate information more effectively.
The partnership resulted in a sharing of information that found that 18,158 public housing and multifamily properties around the country were located within 1 mile of a Superfund site.
Of those, 7,676 were identified as being of the “highest priority,” because local Superfund sites had not yet been cleaned up, had ongoing or indeterminate human exposure status and had soil or uncharacterized contamination.
Of that list, HUD chose only seven sites it considered to be the highest risk for residents in HUD-funded properties for remediation. The agency has not revealed the location or identity of those facilities.
That left millions of families living at thousands of public housing sites in Indiana and the rest of the nation potentially at risk of toxic contamination from lead and other pollutants.
That possibility inspired Chizewer, Coffey and a team of attorneys from the Shriver Center for Poverty Law and the University of Chicago Law School to craft a report in 2020 called “Poisonous Homes,” detailing the environmental threats faced by those residents.
The report found that the lack of communication and coordination among the federal agencies responsible for federally assisted housing, including HUD, and the EPA led to a series of failures that puts families at risk.
In many instances where contamination was found near public housing, agencies failed to notify families of environmental contamination; failed to include environmental health issues in housing inspections; approved new construction and rehabilitation while ignoring known contamination; and failed to monitor housing not undergoing “significant reinvestment of federal housing funds.”
“We think this is a national problem,” said Coffey. “Under the Office of the Inspector General’s view, they’ve been alerted to these thousands of sites. There’s an obligation there that they need to do further investigation into all of them to determine whether or not the location of the housing is posing a health risk to the residents, and the report says that’s not happening, that they essentially stopped investigating over the last couple of years.”
The HUD Inspector General’s findings mirrored Coffey’s own.
The report found that HUD “has done little to learn more about the properties it suspects of being harmful to residents.” HUD officials told investigators that they were aware of dozens of potentially contaminated properties in their regions but felt “stuck” and “unsure about what else to do.”
The report recommended HUD proactively begin to research properties of concern, including reviewing their historic uses, and periodically monitor completed projects for environmental compliance.
That will be a difficult task for the agency, considering many of its public housing properties were built before NEPA reviews were required and HUD did not consistently complete environmental reviews until 1996.
As a result, thousands of Indiana families in public housing could be facing contamination threats and not even know it.
In Indiana, 53 sites in 32 cities with various types of contamination have been on the National Priorities List since its inception in 1980.
About half of those sites are within 2 miles or less of HUD-funded public housing.
Elkhart leads the state with the most sites on the NPL list.
Its six sites have a history of contamination from volatile organic compounds, PCB, trichloroethylene, carbon tetrachloride and other toxic contaminants. Nearly all of them are within 2 miles of public housing for low-income families and senior citizens.
One of the sites, the Main Street Well Field, is only about 400 feet away from an apartment complex for seniors.
In Indianapolis, the Carter Lee Lumber Co. site, once contaminated with DDT and other chemicals, is within 2 miles of eight public housing sites.
Anderson’s Broadway Street Corridor Groundwater Contamination, which is still being treated for chlorinated volatile organic compounds from an unknown source, is within 2 miles of eight public housing sites.
Bloomington’s former Lemon Lane Landfill, treated for PCB contamination, is located within a half mile of many public housing sites.
The same situation can be found in Gary, Fort Wayne, Columbus, Lebanon, Kokomo and many other cities and towns.
Public housing residents in cities with Superfund sites are not the only ones who face the risk of contamination.
Hundreds more contaminated sites that are not regulated by the Superfund program, including more than 100 active sites in Indiana with contamination regulated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, also threaten the health of residents in public housing.
Unlike the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, which governs the Superfund program, RCRA regulates waste disposal at sites that are still in operation, allowing the EPA to manage hazardous waste disposal at sites while it is being produced.
At the state level, thousands of contaminated parcels of abandoned properties called brownfields dot urban and rural areas.
State regulations allow the owners of the contaminated properties to remove the contamination or keep it sequestered in place. The site is then supposed to be monitored and the state can restrict the use of the property in order to eliminate contaminant exposure pathways, or the ways people can come into contact with the sequestered contaminant.
The contamination can be more difficult to access, but is not eliminated. Even when it is removed, the contamination is transferred to a landfill or another holding area.
Coffey said that, due to its procedures in the past, HUD probably has no idea what environmental risks threaten its public housing facilities, and the agency could repeat its past failures if it does not adopt a new strategy to identify the contamination threats.
BUILT TO FAIL MINORITIES
The institutional failures that have predominately affected people of color can be traced to current and historic discriminatory practices at both the federal and local levels.
The disparity may be due to income inequality.
One study found that, even with similar educations and experience level, Black men are paid 87 cents for every dollar earned by white men, a pay gap that widens as the job level increases.
Women, overall, are paid less than men, but the pay gap is worse for women of color, especially Black women. While white women are paid 79 cents for every dollar earned by white men, Black women are paid only 62 cents.
Pay disparities force people to seek assistance from government sources, leading some to public housing, the siting of which has direct links to regulations meant to preserve segregation found in the communities where the public housing would be built.
Modern federal public housing began as part of the New Deal, a series of programs and projects enacted to lift the U.S. out of the Great Depression.
The Public Works Administration, which built large-scale public works in the U.S. funded by the federal government, had a housing division that built thousands of homes between 1933 and 1937.
Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, former president of the Chicago NAACP, established the Neighborhood Composition Rule for the Public Works Administration, which set guidelines that public housing should not disturb the pre-existing racial composition of neighborhoods where it was placed.
In other words, the rule said public housing should be inhabited by people of the same race of the community where the housing was built.
The rule was invalidated in 1949, but not before 170,000 public housing units were built, establishing a tradition of segregated housing that was passed on even as new public housing legislation was crafted.
HUD was established in 1965, and the Fair Housing Act, which outlawed discrimination in housing, was passed in 1968.
The Nixon administration shifted the focus of public housing to the private sector, with federal money funding private housing developments that would be made available to needy Americans.
The Section 8 New Construction and Substantial Rehabilitation program enabled the construction of hundreds of thousands of housing units through HUD and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program.
Those and other programs expand the amount of housing available to Americans who need them, but local governments infuse their own brand of segregated housing patterns on federal housing through the project approval process.
That influence could be affecting the health of millions of low-income and minority Americans across the country.
“We still continue to see today that there’s a lot of deference that is given to local governments about where they’re going to allow things to be built, where they’re going to allow industry to be placed and where they’re going to prioritize using the federal housing money that they receive,” said Coffey. “There’s kind of an evolution of how we as a society are perpetuating segregation, but it continues to be a practice that is incentivized and encouraged, because when you’re building affordable housing, building it on cheaper lands, [segregation] continues to be possible and doable, especially the current way that we build new, affordable housing.”
The Biden administration has pledged to bring environmental justice to the forefront. President Joe Biden has taken multiple steps to attempt to fulfill that promise, including issuing executive orders wiping out regressive environmental policies from the previous administration and making strategic cabinet appointments to key positions that can help carry out his environmental justice goals.
One key appointment is the nomination of former U.S. Representative from Ohio Marcia Fudge to head HUD, who said she would transform the agency.
“We are thousands of people short of where we ought to be. Our staff is outstanding. They are under resources, understaffed and overworked, but we are going to make major changes and very quickly,” Fudge said.
During a press conference, Fudge said the American Rescue Plan Act, more commonly known as the COVID-19 Stimulus Package, would give HUD a one-time opportunity to change what is going on in public housing in the U.S., but said real change in the nation’s public housing would require a much larger investment.
“We cannot, through this package alone, repair and restore 50-year-old housing authorities across this country which are crumbling every day. We cannot abate lead in every single building we need to with these resources. We need at least another $70 to $100 billion dollars to do those things,” she said.
Chizewer and Coffey said the early signs of change in the Biden administration are promising, but remain to be fully proven.
“The key is going to be in the implementation, right?” said Chizewer. “We’re in the very early days, and I know, as advocates, we’re going to be holding the administration accountable to achieve change to really protect communities and go farther than his predecessors. But, from an out-of-the-gate start, they are in a stronger place than past administrations, so let’s see if they live up to their promises.”
Former West Calumet Housing Complex residents have sought to hold the authorities responsible for their contamination exposure.
Several class action lawsuits in federal and state courts have targeted local and state authorities’ failures overseeing public housing in East Chicago, but none have yet filed suit against HUD.
One of the earliest lawsuits, filed in federal court by at least 13 West Calumet Housing Complex residents in 2016, argued that Mayor Anthony Copeland, ECHA director Tia Cauley and their respective departments knew the complex was contaminated, or should have known it was contaminated, and failed to tell tenants about that risk of contamination.
The suit also claims other violations of state and federal law.
“The defendants failed to protect the Tenants, concealed the fact that lead and arsenic were present at the Complex, and planned to destroy the Complex at an economically-convenient time with disregard for the rights of the Tenants,” the lawsuit states.
In legal documents, Cauley’s legal team denied each of the allegations and claimed that the plaintiffs were more than 50% at fault for the situations alleged in the suit.
Copeland’s attorneys denied the allegations, saying that he and other defendants acted in “good faith” and had “reasonable grounds” for believing what they did about the situation at the complex and that any omissions were not a violation of any law. The team also claimed he had federal and state immunity to the allegations.
That case is ongoing in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Indiana Hammond Division.
Dozens of former West Calumet Housing Complex residents also filed state-level lawsuits against city and state agencies.
One lawsuit filed in 2017 argued that the City of East Chicago and the ECHA knew or should have known that the soil around the complex and the neighboring elementary school was heavily contaminated with lead, arsenic and other highly toxic substances.
The suit also alleges that East Chicago’s Department of Public & Environmental Health, IDEM, the State Department of Health and the State of Indiana knew about pollution at those places, but failed to warn residents and students or take other steps to eliminate their exposure to the toxic conditions.
Attorneys for the state, IDEM and ISDH argued that a state law giving state government entities immunity from lawsuits under some conditions protected the agencies from liability because no state law specifically stated that the agencies had to notify citizens about exposure to toxic waste.
A trial court denied the state’s claim, and the ruling was upheld by a state appeals court.
The judge overseeing the case ordered both sides to share information and ordered a third-party vendor to collect medical records, including blood tests.
That case will continue in October.
A second lawsuit alleges that city and state authorities knew about the lead and arsenic dangers, failed to warn residents and then actively concealed the dangers.
The judge in that case signed a protective order that allows documents, depositions and other information produced in this case to be designated as confidential.
That case is ongoing.
East Chicago officials have not responded to the Indiana Environmental Reporter's requests for information.