Carmen Garza, 74, moved to the city of East Chicago, Indiana, 41 years ago. She bought her house with her husband and quickly made it home, turning their backyard into a tomato and chili garden every summer. “They were so good,” Garza tells Colorlines in Spanish. “Riquísimos.”
Three years ago, that ended after a neighbor asked the couple why they were growing vegetables in contaminated dirt.
The Garzas quickly abandoned their garden. But they were left with more questions than answers: “She told me it was contaminated, but she didn’t say of what,” Garza recalls.
The contaminant turned out to be lead, the couple ultimately found out thanks to community efforts to discover this information. And it’s not just in the dirt—it’s in the Garza's drinking water, too. This is because East Chicago, a predominantly Black and Latinx city of nearly 30,000, is located on the USS Lead Superfund Site.
The former USS Lead facility ran here until 1985. The site was placed on the National Priorities List of the worst contaminated sites in the country in 2009, but the EPA was aware since the facility’s closure that it was contaminating nearby areas, according to this 1985 inspection report. And as a Chicago Tribune investigation in December 2016 unearthed, government officials were warned that this contamination posed a public health risk for decades. Still, they failed to test the soil or begin cleanup efforts until 2014. That soil data didn’t make it into city officials’ hands until May 2016. With it, they saw how severe the problem really was: Some homeowners' backyards had lead levels higher than 45,000 parts per million, far beyond the federal limit of 400 parts per million.
No one told prospective buyers like Garza—not when she first bought her home or even when government officials came to inspect her yard about 10 years ago to “examine the dirt in people’s yards to clean for the animals,” as she says officials told her. She didn’t find out what was going on until last year when community members from the West Calumet Housing Complex started organizing around the issue.
“Imagine you stop going outside,” Garza says. “You don’t grill steak outside anymore. What can I do? I don’t have money to move.”
And then came the news of the water contamination in January. The EPA conducted a drinking water pilot study on 43 homes in fall 2016 to see if the excavation work to clean up the Superfund site would affect drinking water lead levels. They tested drinking water before and after excavation. The city, like many other older municipalities around the country, is full of service lines made out of lead. As the EPA states in an FAQ, construction work can sometimes disturb these lines and result in the leaching of lead.
That study found that the tap water in 18 homes before excavation and 12 homes after excavation had lead levels beyond 15 parts per million, which requires government intervention under the Lead and Copper Rule.
Garza’s home was included in the study. The state gave her a water filter after revealing its findings in January, but she still buys water by the gallons and bottles to cook and drink. She estimates she spends $20 a month on them, an expense that she says she is feasible within her budget.
But Garza says her daily routine is unacceptable. She can’t deal with the mental stress of knowing her water is contaminated, that her yard is contaminated and that even the dust in her home is contaminated. In 2002, she was diagnosed with—and beat—colon cancer, only to now face the concern of what will come from her daily showers in lead-tainted water, which authorities say pose no health risk. “That’s the torment,” she says. “It’s a constant threat.”
Now, community members are putting this issue onto the national radar so it can get the attention it deserves. East Chicago is forcing all 1,100 residents of the West Calumet Housing Complex to uproot their lives and move so that the city can demolish the building and deal with the lead on which it sits. And while it's too early to tell how the lead might impact children's developmental growth, 20 percent of children younger than seven saw their blood lead levels test greater than 5 micrograms per decileter, The Northwest Indiana Times reports. Parents are already worried that the lead poisoning has made them sick. They’re comparing it to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the predominantly Black city of 100,000 saw elevated blood lead levels in 2015 after unknowingly drinking contaminated water for over a year.
Groups including the East Chicago Calumet Coalition Community Advisory Group and National Nurses United sent a petition to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on March 2 asking the agency to “use its emergency powers under the Safe Drinking Water Act … to take action to abate the imminent and substantial endangerment to human health caused by lead contamination in East Chicago’s drinking water.”
Erik Olsen, director of the National Resources Defense Council’s Health and Environment Program, stood before the Senate Committee on Energy and Commerce today (March 16) to testify at a hearing titled “Reinvestment and Rehabilitation of Our Nation’s Safe Drinking Water Deliver Systems” in Washington, D.C., another American city that's hs similar drinking water issues. In the early 2000s, the city had a dramatic increase of lead in drinking water—and also in its infants and toddlers.
“I think we all take for granted where this water that’s in here comes from,” Olsen began his testimony, lifting his cup of water. He sat before the committee and explicitly mentioned the situation in East Chicago. “What’s going to happen to that community?” he asked. “How are we going to restore confidence in the water supply in East Chicago and a lot of communities across the country?”
Watch the full hearing below with Olsen's testimony beginning around the 36 minute mark.
These steps—from the petition to the testimony—are putting into motion necessary intervention to protect the health of the city’s residents. While then-Indiana governor and current Vice President Mike Pence rejected the city's request for emergency declaration in late 2016, current Governor Eric Holcomb approved the request in February. In January, the city also secured a $3.1 million state grant to begin replacing its lead pipes with more standard and safe infrastructure—which the city of Flint is currently doing as well.
Until the pipes have been replaced, city residents must struggle to find answers about how their water got contaminated—and for how long that's been the case. A group of residents wrote a letter to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission in January. “[A]lthough the full picture is only beginning to emerge, this is clearly the City’s mess,” they wrote.
As for Garza, the lingering question remains: “Why?”