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Indiana Neighborhood Learns It's Had Lead-Contaminated Soil For Decades


And we've been hearing a lot about the lead-contaminated water in Flint, Mich. In the city of East Chicago, Ind., it's not lead in the water that's the problem; it's lead in the soil. The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting tests, and local leaders have ordered 1,100 residents to move out. As Nick Janzen from Indiana Public Broadcasting reports, many people are upset that they're only learning now that their neighborhood has been unsafe for decades.

NICK JANZEN, BYLINE: Byron Florence is in a car, pointing out neighborhood landmarks.

BYRON FLORENCE: This is McCook. We used to walk this block every day going back and forth to school.

JANZEN: Florence is 64 years old, and he's lived in this part of East Chicago, Ind., most of his life. In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency designated this area a Superfund site because of lead-contaminated soil. The Superfund program cleans up the country's most contaminated land. This site used to be home to several companies, including the U.S.S. Lead plant. It was a smelting facility, processing raw lead for use in products like batteries or pipes.

FLORENCE: Now, this is the area, you know, as they say, that was affected, you know, when the lead plant was there. This is my house here - the white house right here on the corner.

JANZEN: When people play, garden or walk around lead-contaminated soil, it's easily inhaled or ingested. Lead poisoning damages the brain and nervous system. It can cause learning and behavioral problems, and it stunts growth, so it's especially dangerous to children. Florence remembers growing up here.

FLORENCE: We would be playing baseball. They would barrels - 55 gallon barrels - up and down this area. And a bulldozer would come in and cover it up. And maybe half-hour, 45 minutes after they left, we're digging it up, poking holes in the barrels, just seeing the stuff squirt up.

JANZEN: In 1985 U.S.S. Lead shut down. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management found the facility often exceeded permit levels for lead and arsenic. That's what's now being found in the soil of the Calumet neighborhood of East Chicago. State Senator Lonnie Randolph represents this area. He's worried families could have lived with this contamination for decades.

LONNIE RANDOLPH: I'm too mad to be scared. And I imagine that's how a lot of people, particularly the families of West Calumet, feel. And you've got some stories saying that hotspots in that area were discovered back in the '70s.

JANZEN: EPA records dating to at least 1985 show elevated lead levels in the soil around the former plant, but a lot of residents say they've only learned about that recently. The EPA says it's only finalized test results in May, which showed lead levels 10 times higher than what's allowed. That's when the government ordered people out. East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland ordered the shutdown of the West Calumet Housing Complex, where the worst contamination is. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is helping those 1,100 residents look for new homes. Sherry Hunter says this is all quite a shock.

SHERRY HUNTER: All of a sudden, about a month ago, when the mayor finally gets the test, and he wants to panic and get everybody out at one time.

JANZEN: Others have praised the mayor's quick response. Demolishing the housing complex is more than what the EPA had planned to do, which was just to remove the contaminated soil. Still, that doesn't help residents like Sherry Hunter or Byron Florence. They live a few streets away, and the government can't formally identify which company is responsible for the lead contamination in their part of the neighborhood. For NPR News, I'm Nick Janzen in East Chicago, Ind. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nick Janzen