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Vice President-elect Mike Pence speaks to members of the media Jan. 3 as he arrives at Trump Tower in New York.

EAST CHICAGO — Prior to leaving office, Gov. Mike Pence rejected the mayor’s request for an emergency declaration over lead contamination, saying, in part, the state of Indiana has provided adequate assistance to the financially strapped city since news first broke last summer that Calumet and West Calumet residents were living on highly contaminated soil.

Residents pushed the mayor late last year to request a declaration for the USS Lead Superfund site, saying it would bring additional dollars to East Chicago to deal with the ongoing lead and arsenic crisis and pave a path for additional federal resources, including Medicare for life for residents exposed to environmental toxins.

“Given the level of coordination among federal, state and local agencies, the state resources provided to date, and the resources available under the federal Superfund program, the issues described within your letter are being addressed without the need for a disaster emergency declaration,” the letter states.

City Attorney Carla Morgan on Wednesday released a copy of the letter following a records request from The Times. The letter from Pence is dated Dec. 14, but residents were not informed by the city of Pence’s decision until a meeting last Friday.

Morgan said Wednesday that Copeland is drafting a similar request to Gov. Eric Holcomb. Holcomb’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

East Chicago residents say they hope Holcomb considers the declaration, saying added resources could help, in part, with purchasing water filters.

“We’re going to keep pushing,” said Sara Jimenez, a Superfund site homeowner.

Recent EPA results showed elevated lead levels in drinking water in 18 of 43 properties where soil was excavated within the USS Lead Superfund site, likely due to aging lead service lines. Those aging service lines are throughout the city, though the city maintains it provides clean drinking water. 

In the letter, Pence’s general counsel Mark Ahearn outlines how Indiana released $200,000 to the city’s housing authority and health department to aid with the relocation efforts and free lead testing of children and families.

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The letter alleges the city, as of Dec. 14, had yet to hire or contract with a public health nurse and health educator using the $100,000 in state grant dollars.

Morgan did not immediately respond to questions about the allegation Wednesday afternoon.

The state’s health department has worked closely with the local health department to offer free lead testing to residents through mobile clinics and “one-stop shops,” Ahearn wrote, and the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority worked with HUD to provide relocation services.

The East Chicago Housing Authority on Dec. 13 told the state those IHCDA services were no longer needed, according to Pence’s office.

Copeland in his Dec. 1 letter told Pence the East Chicago Housing Authority has depleted $1.1 million of its $1.6 million capital fund to assist residents with moving expenses and the East Chicago School District is facing cash shortfalls due to the closure of Carrie Gosch Elementary and declining enrollment.

Copeland in the Dec. 1 letter told Pence the local government response has "strained our local resources to the point of breaking."

Pence also told the city the West Calumet complex does not qualify for the federal Hardest Hit Blight Elimination program, meaning the city must pursue alternate funding to demolish the 346-unit neighborhood once the remaining families living there relocate. Copeland late last year requested up to $8 million in emergency demolition dollars to secure and demolish the complex.

Sheilah Garland, a member of a strategy group, said last week the city should do more to elevate the crisis as more than 1,000 individuals, including nearly 700 children, are being forced to relocate from the West Calumet Housing Complex and several of the more than 1,000 private properties are being cleaned by the EPA in the Calumet neighborhood. 

“It’s important that (Copeland) make this a public fight,” Garland said.

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Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.