More than a year before the U.S. EPA found dangerous lead levels in drinking water at 18 East Chicago homes, the city began using a chemical to control corrosion of lead pipes approved by IDEM but not recommended by experts, because it actually can increase lead release.
In a city where up to 90 percent of water lines could contain lead, using sodium hexametaphosphate might have been worse than conducting no corrosion control at all, said Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.
Edwards, who co-wrote a 2002 study concluding “hexametaphosphate tends to increase the release of soluble and particulate lead in drinking water,” said he would never recommend the chemical for corrosion control in a city with lead pipes.
Exposure to lead poses serious health risks, particularly to young children and fetuses. Even at low doses, it can cause irreversible learning disabilities and health problems.
Edwards said the city's corrosion control plan before the switch to sodium hexametaphosphate also was inadequate. And a new chemical introduced after use of sodium hexametaphosphate and recent increases in its dose still may not be enough to protect East Chicago residents, particularly children, from high levels of lead in their water, he said.
Since last summer, 18 out of 431 children tested have been confirmed to have blood lead levels above the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 5 parts per million action level, according to data provided this month by the Indiana State Department of Health.
Up to 20 percent of children in zone 1 of the East Chicago USS Lead Superfund site, where the most heavily contaminated soil across three residential cleanup areas was found, had preliminary or confirmed elevated blood lead levels between 2005 and 2015.* Lead in the soil and lead in water are not related, but residents exposed to both face cumulative health risks.
A contractor for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management began installing water filters last week in zones 2 and 3 of the Superfund site and is expected to complete the work by April 30.
City: We were abiding by permit
IDEM, which has primary regulatory authority over East Chicago’s drinking water, approved the change in chemicals in May 2009, when it issued a permit for construction of the city’s new water filtration plant, records show.
A spokesman for IDEM said he could not comment on whether the department was aware of Edwards' 2002 study regarding sodium hexametaphosphate when the department in 2009 approved the chemical for use in East Chicago.
“It is important to note that East Chicago’s drinking water is in full compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and has been in compliance with EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule since 1993,” he said. “IDEM has committed to conduct additional testing of the drinking water to further verify compliance.”
East Chicago Utilities Director Greg Crowley said he wasn't aware of research by Edwards and others about sodium hexametaphosphate when the city started using the chemical in 2015. The decision to use the chemical was made before he worked for the city. At that time, the city was working to get its new-but-idled water filtration plant up and running, and the city did what was required under the May 2009 permit, Crowley said.
"It's important to recognize it's an important health issue today," he said. "Certainly people have more recognition of the potential health hazards of having these old (lead) lines," he said.
East Chicago wants to be proactive and has initiated outreach with residents to further test water, he said. An engineering firm is preparing a plan to use $3.1 million in state grant money to replace lead lines, starting in the Superfund site, he said.
Rule creates false sense of security
East Chicago officials also have stressed the city is in compliance with regulations and said water leaving the city's filtration plants does not have elevated lead levels. The city, like many others across the country, is dealing with the legacy of lead pipes, they said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said lead enters drinking water for two reasons: insufficient orthophosphate levels in the system, or corrosion of plumbing equipment, including brass or chrome-plated brass faucets, fixtures with lead solder, and lead or galvanized steel pipes.
Edwards, the professor who has been instrumental in exposing elevated lead levels in drinking water in Flint, Michigan, and Washington, D.C., said both of those cities were in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule before elevated lead levels in their water were discovered.
“When someone comes out and says, ‘Well, we’ve been meeting the Lead and Copper Rule,’ my heart skips a couple of beats,” he said.
Edwards said the Lead and Copper Rule has been used to create a false sense of security. The EPA published the Lead and Copper Rule in 1991, and said it plans to propose revisions to the rule this year.
East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland announced Dec. 8 that EPA found elevated lead levels in drinking water. Since then, EPA has said all of East Chicago’s water customers should assume they have lead lines — and use a certified water filter.
Emails released by EPA in response to The Times’ Freedom of Information Act request show IDEM, as recently as January, did not agree with EPA’s conclusion the problem likely was systemwide.
IDEM officials characterized the problem as isolated in the USS Lead Superfund site, where EPA plans to resume a cleanup of lead- and arsenic-contaminated soil in May.
Emails show EPA raised alarm
In its 2009 permit, IDEM approved East Chicago’s plan to build a new, $52 million filtration plant to replace an outdated filtration plant built in 1929 and last updated in 1964, records show.
The new plant failed shortly after startup in 2011 and remained idle for nearly two years, according to a city engineering report. The city and Siemens Industry Inc. sued each other in August 2013 and eventually reached a settlement in mid-2015, court records show. The city conducted testing at the new plant in 2015 and 2016, and it recently began processing most of the city's water, Crowley said.
East Chicago started using sodium hexametaphosphate at its old plant on Aldis Avenue in spring 2015 and at its new plant on Pennsylvania Avenue in spring 2016, the report said. IDEM said it approved the chemical’s use at both plants.
Virginia Tech's Edwards said sodium hexametaphosphate, which has little orthophosphate in it, is considered a “bad” corrosion control. Orthophosphate is considered a “good” corrosion control, he said.
The chemicals can create a scale inside pipes to prevent lead and copper, and other metals, from leaching into water.
IDEM said it asked East Chicago to conduct Lead and Copper Rule testing in July 2016, about a year earlier than scheduled, because of changes at the filtration plants. All 30 samples were below the EPA's action level of 15 parts per billion, records show.
Emails showed EPA employees began asking in mid-August what chemical East Chicago used to control corrosion in water lines.
The federal agency had arrived in East Chicago months earlier to begin a cleanup at the Superfund site, which includes the West Calumet, Calumet and East Calumet neighborhoods. The EPA tested drinking water as part of a pilot study to determine whether excavation work can cause lead scale inside pipes to flake off and enter the water supply; elevated lead levels were found before digging started.
When IDEM notified EPA Aug. 16 that the city was using sodium hexametaphosphate, EPA Region 5 Groundwater and Drinking Water Branch employees shared a link to a 2005 American Water Works Association report about lead and copper corrosion control.
The email included a quote from the report: “Polyphosphates and sodium hexametaphophate are sequestering agents and may be effective for the control of iron and manganese, but are not recommended for the control of lead and copper.” Edwards’ 2002 study was cited as a source.
On Aug. 19, IDEM notified EPA that the city would start using a chemical called Carus 8600. Carus 8600 includes 30 percent polyphosphate as hexametaphosphate and 70 percent orthophosphate, EPA said.
An EPA employee replied, “We are glad they are using a blend," emails show.
City: No reason given for change
East Chicago's Crowley said the city made the change in chemicals from sodium hexametaphosphate to Carus 8600 in September after receiving guidance from IDEM.
“My understanding was that EPA had approached IDEM to make the switch, but there was not direct communication from EPA to the city,” he said.
The state and federal agencies did not give East Chicago a specific reason for the change, he said.
East Chicago began using Carus 8600 on Sept. 6, records show. EPA said it took its first water sample Sept. 28, less than a month after the change.
On Oct. 24, the EPA notified IDEM results from the first samples showed low or no orthophosphate levels at two homes. IDEM on Oct. 26 recommended East Chicago increase the amount of the corrosion inhibitor it was using, emails show. The EPA ultimately found elevated lead levels at 18 of 43, or about 41 percent, of homes tested.
“It would have been helpful if they (EPA) had been more hands-on in helping to optimize this feed that they basically directed the city to switch to,” Crowley said.
The EPA recently said it stands ready to provide technical assistance to agencies like IDEM, which have primary authority over public water systems.
"IDEM and the city of East Chicago are running an effective drinking water program that has been — and remains — in full compliance with EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule," EPA said.
Seventeen organizations — including the Natural Resources Defense Council, attorneys working pro bono on behalf of residents, the NAACP and community groups — on March 2 petitioned the EPA to use its emergency powers to address possible high lead levels throughout the city. The groups said East Chicago and IDEM have failed to act to protect residents’ health, and EPA has authority to step in.
The EPA said in March the petition was under review. Newly confirmed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is scheduled to visit the city Wednesday. Crowley declined to comment on the petition.
Edwards supports EPA on water work
Edwards criticized a 2011 public health assessment prepared by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry ahead of EPA's work at the Superfund site. The ATSDR report concluded: “Breathing the air, drinking tap water or playing in the soil in neighborhoods near the USS Lead site is not expected to harm people’s health.”
“If they talked about the lack of dangers from lead in water, why on earth didn’t they collect some samples using standardized protocols? This is the very definition of providing false assurances,” Edwards said.
If ATSDR had sampled water in 2011, it probably would have found high lead levels because the city for years was not adequately treating its water to prevent lead release from plumbing equipment, he said.
EPA’s recent sampling, which was more robust than the testing required under the Lead and Copper Rule, showed some of the highest lead levels found in individual samples were 130, 87 and 81.2 ppb.
“Any result of 15 ppb is a major cause for concern," Edwards said. "Exposure to water at 15 ppb can certainly increase blood lead in children above CDC levels of concern, without any other source of lead exposure in a child’s environment.”
EPA said no level of lead in water is safe. The federal agency also has pointed to the flawed ATSDR report as one of the reasons it took so long to begin cleaning up contaminated soil in the Superfund site — which has been on EPA's radar since at least 1985.
Edwards said he makes no excuses for EPA Region 5’s actions in East Chicago in the decades since it first learned of lead in the soil. But, he said, the agency deserves credit for discovering lead in the city’s water. There’s been a culture change at EPA Region 5 since its former administrator resigned in the wake of the Flint disaster, he said.
“I am not shy about criticizing EPA, but I have to call out good work when I see it,” he said.
ATSDR said it’s currently preparing a new public health report based on historical, environmental and health data collected since 2011. The new assessment will give a more comprehensive evaluation of health impacts from exposure to industrial contaminants in the entire Calumet neighborhood, the agency said.
The ATSDR is in the process of defining the scope of the assessment, but it likely will be broken into separate reports.
“We anticipate that our first report will be a summary of blood lead levels in children in the impacted neighborhoods from 2005 to 2015,” the agency said.
“The focus of the remaining portions of the assessment will be developed in consultation with other agency partners.”
* Editor's note: This story has been updated from a previous version.