EAST CHICAGO — Community members who sat down with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Wednesday said he listened to their concerns about lead in their water and soil but made no commitments.
Pruitt toured all three zones of the USS Lead Superfund site before receiving separate briefings from officials about work at the site and community members, officials said. After the briefings, Pruitt, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, Northwest Indiana's congressional delegation and Mayor Anthony Copeland appeared at a news conference.
East Chicago resident Thomas Frank said residents who met with Pruitt confronted him about proposals to cut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Justice program, gut the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and cut costs in the Superfund program.
Pruitt pledged to do what was needed in East Chicago, but also spoke about financial constraints, Frank said.
"He did volunteer an idea of voluntary buyouts for residents," Frank said. "We had been discussing that and made it one of our demands. That was the only thing he did — acknowledge that they are looking at that."
Pruitt offered no feedback on the fate of the Environmental Justice program, which advocates for fairness in low-income communities of color, he said.
"After 130 years of industrialization and all the harm that has been done, we need a justice framework," Frank said.
Sara Jimenez, a resident of zone 3 of the USS Lead Superfund site, described the meeting as comfortable, but said she was unsure if officials would be moved to take further action based on what they heard.
"The stories that were told there by the residents — you could tell it made an impact," she said.
Maritza Lopez, a fellow zone 3 resident, said she provided Pruitt's office with a multipage list of medications she takes daily to show the effects of contamination in the neighborhood she has long called home. She said she told Pruitt and Holcomb's staff of losing her family members at young ages, and her own personal health ailments. She said testing at Mayo Clinic showed lead, arsenic and cadmium in her bones.
"My fight is daily to live, and that’s been that way for years, but to find out now, why this is all happening, and knowing what I know, I can’t keep quiet," Lopez said. "I’m a living testimony. If it saves someone else, then I have to do it."
Lopez and Jimenez are two of approximately 3,000 residents in zones 2 and 3 of the Superfund site who are remaining in their homes as EPA cleans up their neighborhood. Many families living in zone 1, which includes the West Calumet Housing Complex, have left since the city ordered them to relocate last summer.
Jimenez said she shared her story with Pruitt, and he asked questions. The exchange was pleasant, she said.
Jimenez and her husband had a buyer lined up for their home, but had to put the sale on hold last year after receiving a letter from EPA saying their property was contaminated. The value of their home has fallen tens of thousands of dollars since before the Great Recession, she said.
Jimenez said she later watched a video of an interview EPA Region 5 Acting Administrator Robert Kaplan gave to reporters at the news conference and felt emotional.
"He mentioned a lot of things," she said. "Things we've been fighting for. So I think we are moving forward."
Kaplan told reporters Wednesday the EPA is expediting the groundwater study at the Superfund site and will adjust its remediation plans as needed following the release of a forthcoming public health assessment from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. He also said EPA is seriously considering the drinking water petition.
An EPA spokesperson said Thursday Kaplan agreed with meet soon with one of the community groups.
During the news conference, Pruitt said he hoped his visit to East Chicago’s USS Lead Superfund site — his first to any Superfund site in the country — would be the first step of many in “restoring confidence” in a community grappling with a legacy of toxic industry.
“Please know that it is the EPA’s objective, my objective as the administrator of the EPA, to come in and make sure people’s health is protected here in East Chicago, and that they can have the confidence that their land, their health is going to be secured for the long term,” Pruitt said during a brief media statement outside the former Carrie Gosch Elementary School — shuttered last summer amid fears of lead contamination.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is “committed to doing that … in a very efficient and effective way,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt did not offer any details as to how EPA’s federal headquarters would restore such confidence during his 90-second speech, after which he declined to take questions from reporters.