Shantel Allen gets daughter Samira and son Charles ready for a drive this month from their home in the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago. Samira, 2, was recently found to have lead levels in her blood more that five times what the federal government says warrants intervention. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
Shantel Allen gets daughter Samira and son Charles ready for a drive this month from their home in the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago. Samira, 2, was recently found to have lead levels in her blood more that five times what the federal government says warrants intervention. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
Nearly 70% of toxic U.S. Superfund sites are within one mile of public housing like East Chicago’s West Calumet Housing Complex, according to a recent report from the Chicago-based Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

It estimates at least 77,000 families living in 1,000 HUD-assisted housing buildings across the U.S. are affected, disproportionately in Black and Hispanic communities.

“Environmental racism has played a central role in this devastation,” it said. “Laws and policies have put Black and Brown communities in direct proximity to environmental toxins.”

The report cites the U.S.S. Lead Superfund site as a test case. The area was poisoned with heavy metals including lead and arsenic from a former lead smelter. By the 1990s, 40% of tested children at the nearby West Calumet Housing Complex showed elevated lead levels in their blood, the report said.

“Minimal, if any, precautions were taken during renovation and new construction within the (U.S.S. Lead) site, which included building a new elementary school — with a vegetable garden — and constructing new playgrounds and adding ramps and landscaping,” it said.

In 2009, U.S.S. Lead was added to the EPA’s National Priorities List, designated as a Superfund site.

By 2016, many of West Calumet’s 1,000 residents said they were not aware of its toxicity until the city’s evacuation order, it said. Many faced a “chaotic” relocation, the report states. Soil sampled around 2016 at the West Calumet Housing Complex found lead levels as high as 228 times the EPA’s limit.

The complex was demolished in 2018.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently ruled the lawsuit filed in 2017 by more than 300 East Chicago residents seeking damages against a group of companies tied to the lead contamination on their properties decades ago will go forward.

The Shriver Center report was written by several who have stepped into offer legal or technical help to East Chicago residents, including University of Chicago Abrams Law Clinic Director Mark Templeton; Earthjustice managing attorney Debbie Chizewer; Shriver Center lawyers Emily Coffey and Kate Walz; and Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer.

The Trump administration has built up the biggest backlog of unfunded toxic Superfund clean-up projects in at least 15 years, nearly triple the number that were stalled for lack of money in the Obama era, according to 2019 figures quietly released by the Environmental Protection Agency last winter.

The Associated Press contributed.
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