EPA warns of lead in water in East Chicago
March 03--A water tower with the slogan "For Our Children, East Chicago" looms near the West Calumet housing complex in East Chicago. In recent testing, the EPA found high levels of lead in tap water in 40 percent of the homes tested in the Indiana city.
When federal officials revived a long-delayed cleanup of toxic soil in East Chicago last year, they discovered that decades of factory emissions weren't the only source of brain-damaging lead endangering the Indiana community.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is warning the city's 29,000 residents they also may have been drinking lead-contaminated tap water.
In a pilot study conducted during the fall, the EPA found high levels of the toxic metal flowing out of household taps in East Chicago. EPA investigators later determined the city's water treatment wasn't effective enough to prevent lead from leaching out of pipes that connect homes to municipal water mains.
The EPA has since provided bottled water and water filters to the 43 homes it tested in East Chicago. But while the agency is advising everyone else living in the predominantly Latino and African-American city to take similar precautions on their own, a coalition of environmental groups is calling for a more aggressive response.
"We should not be left drinking poison while officials ponder away at long-term solutions," said Sherry Hunter, a resident who joined groups that petitioned the EPA on Thursday to distribute filters citywide. "If the city and state cannot help us quickly, it is time for the federal government to help its citizens."
Like scores of older cities across the nation, including Chicago, East Chicago installed lead pipes decades ago to convey drinking water to residents. Federal regulations require larger cities to treat drinking water with chemicals that form a protective coating inside the pipes, but the requirements are less stringent for smaller communities.
East Chicago is considered to be in compliance with the rules it is required to follow, according to the EPA.
The reason federal investigators found high levels of lead in tap water is they wanted to ensure the excavation of lead-contaminated soil outside homes near former factory sites didn't inadvertently disrupt the protective coating inside pipes a few feet underground.
"We wanted to make sure we weren't making the problem worse," Robert Kaplan, the EPA's regional administrator, said in an interview. "Our goal is to be as protective as we can."
When the EPA sampled the water in the fall prior to the excavation work, officials were surprised by the results. Using methods that are far more extensive than what cities are required to use to comply with federal rules, the EPA found high levels of lead in tap water in 40 percent of the homes tested.
The amount of lead in one home was nearly nine times higher than the level that has prompted the EPA to recommend the use of water filters or bottled water in other cities.
Kaplan said the problems in East Chicago are different from what the EPA found two years ago in Flint, Mich., where lead levels in tap water skyrocketed after a state-appointed emergency manager cut costs by switching the city to a more corrosive source of water and the local utility stopped adding anti-corrosion chemicals to the water supply.
Indiana officials had directed East Chicago to improve its treatment methods shortly before the EPA conducted its study, Kaplan said. But it likely will take months to determine if it works.
East Chicago also is seeking a $3.1 million state loan to begin replacing lead service lines. Attempts to reach city officials for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.
The petition filed by environmental groups is the latest attempt to speed up efforts to eliminate lead hazards in East Chicago. Last month, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb approved a disaster declaration that directs state funding to support the EPA's Superfund cleanup of contaminated soil in residential yards near former lead factories -- a request that Vice President Mike Pence had denied when he was the state's governor.