EAST CHICAGO — Residents will be listening Saturday for an answer to a simple question: Is the city’s water safe to drink?
Indiana Department of Environmental Management Drinking Water Branch Chief Mary Hollingsworth will give a presentation, and Commissioner Bruno Piggott will be in attendance at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s monthly meeting, an IDEM spokesman said.
Residents were frustrated last month when EPA Region 5 Groundwater and Drinking Water Division Regulations Manager Miguel Del Toral did not attend. EPA officials said he would instead appear this month with his counterparts from IDEM.
East Chicago did not respond by press time to questions about whether any city officials planned to attend the meeting, which is set for 10 a.m. at the old Carrie Gosch School in West Calumet.
It’s been seven months since Del Toral recommended residents citywide assume they have lead service lines and use water filters, and residents are fed up with “inaction and lack of communication” on the part of government agencies, said Thomas Frank, a member of the Community Strategy Group.
“We’ve been articulating our demands for seven months and there hasn’t been any answer,” Frank said. “So, what we’re going to be putting forward is our plan to try to protect our own water and try to address the issues in absence of any government solutions at this point."
The Community Strategy Group is working to identify funding to conduct third-party water testing, he said.
Residents have asked to be included on the agenda, but had not received any confirmation from EPA as of late Thursday morning, said Anjali Waikar, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
EPA found elevated lead levels last fall at 18 of 43 homes in the USS Lead Superfund site as part of a study related to its work there. The agency later said the problem was likely to be systemwide.
Frank said many mistakenly believe lead in drinking water is limited to the Superfund area, where IDEM has distributed water filters and the city is working to replace up to 400 lead service lines. The Community Strategy Group supports prioritizing aid for the Superfund residents, because they face cumulative health risks due to possible exposure to lead in their soil, indoor dust and drinking water. Lead in drinking water comes from old pipes and is unrelated to lead in soil and dust.
However, all East Chicago residents face exposure to environmental toxins because of the city’s industrial legacy, Frank said.
“We want solutions for the whole city,” Frank said. “We want to eliminate the drinking water issue for all residents and make sure that it’s safe.”
The NRDC filed a petition in March asking EPA to use its emergency powers to respond to its own findings. EPA has not provided any written acknowledgement of the petition, and the agency continuously has rescheduled meetings with NRDC and community groups to discuss the petition, Waikar said.
In June, IDEM said it conducted more sampling and its results showed the problem was not systemwide. Mayor Anthony Copeland issued a statement following IDEM’s announcement saying the department’s results confirmed the city's water "is of exceptional quality."
When asked, “Is my water safe to drink?” at EPA’s meeting last month, Christopher Korleski, director of EPA Region 5 Water Division, suggested residents should weigh their health risks when deciding whether to drink water without a filter. His answer drew a strong reaction from Meleah Geertsma, another attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who told Korleski not to turn the decision back on residents.
Residents want clear answers Saturday, Waikar said.
“They want definitive statements on what EPA’s position is specifically on the quality of the water and the safety of the water,” she said.
Residents also want to know if EPA supports IDEM’s testing results and methods. EPA used a more robust testing method than IDEM did during its sampling last spring, and Waikar said it's like comparing apples to oranges.
“It’s literally unbelievable that the federal agency cannot opine on a very simple issue of whether our water is safe to drink,” Waikar said. “It’s the finest example of bureaucracy getting in the way of public health.”