The Bitter Legacy of the East Chicago Lead Crisis
By Gloria Oladipo
Akeeshea Daniels once lived in the West Calumet public housing complex in the shadow of a former lead smelter in East Chicago, Indiana. She worried about the pervasive lead contamination in the area and hoped that the government would fix the problem. Officials tried — and are still trying — to clean up the mess, but in many ways their efforts have made life harder for residents like Daniels.
After letting industrial pollution linger for decades, in 2016, city and federal officials forced residents of the housing complex to move — but they neglected to provide them adequate means to find new homes. Residents continued to pay rent at the contaminated complex even as they searched for housing elsewhere. Some ended up homeless or relocating to neighborhoods mired in violence.
Daniels struggled to find somewhere she could afford. Every time she had applied to a new apartment, the landlord would run a credit check. The repeated credit checks put a dent in her credit score. "A lot of our credit scores took a hit after they were run at least 19 times total," she said. "Nobody ever said anything about trying to help us build our credit back up." Her lower credit score made it difficult to secure a lease.
When she finally did find a place, she left everything behind from her former apartment because she was afraid of bringing lead-tainted furniture to her new home. "A lot of us walked away with nothing," she said. "I had to start over. No beds, no dressers, no nothing."
The USS Lead Superfund site.
Source: Environmental Protection Agency
The contamination is nothing new. In 1985, the Indiana State Department of Health discovered lead contamination near the USS Lead facility, the same year the facility closed down. While USS Lead would later clean up lead waste at the facility, contamination would linger in the surrounding areas. It wasn't until 2009 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added parts of the USS Lead facility and the surrounding neighborhood to the Superfund National Priorities List.
"Growing up, you heard the folktales that we were living on top of lead, but I never knew. I never did any research and I was never told by the complex," Daniels said.
In the summer of 2016, the EPA sent letters to residents of the housing complex informing them of the lead contamination. Frustrated by the slow pace of the EPA cleanup effort, which continues to this day, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland called on the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to demolish the West Calumet Housing Complex, which it did, forcing more than a thousand residents to move out.
Debbie Chizewer, a Montgomery Foundation Environmental Law Fellow at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, and one of the attorneys representing the East Chicago/Calumet Coalition Community Advisory Group, spoke about the difficulty relocating the West Calumet residents.
"One of the problems is that moving 348 families at once when there's limited affordable housing and Section 8 housing [a federal program that provides rental assistance to low-income tenants] in East Chicago is almost impossible," she said."It was difficult to use the housing vouchers both because East Chicago doesn't have enough housing, and in other communities, residents were being discriminated against."
EPA workers collect soil samples.
Source: Environmental Protection Agency
Facing a lack of affordable housing, Daniels pursued Section 8 housing using vouchers provided by the East Chicago Housing Authority, though she found it difficult to navigate the process.
Similarly, Thomas Frank, a co-founder of Calumet Lives Matter, which advocates for residents affected by lead contamination, said HUD gave residents little help relocating. "HUD basically sent [West Calumet residents] to the wind and sent them all over the country," he said. Many residents, he added, "ended up losing their jobs, and several of them ended up homeless." This is partly due to the fact that many residents "weren't accepted into the [public housing] they were assigned." Frank described one woman who was homeless for six weeks before being accepted back into East Chicago public housing — only to be relocated again.
Kate Walz, vice president of advocacy and senior director of litigation at the Shriver Center, pushed HUD to ensure residents had adequate time and money to relocate. She spoke about the issues residents faced when finding new landlords.
"The housing authority gave out the same list of landlords to all of the families who were moving," she said. "People were essentially competing against each other." She noted that some of the properties landlords had listed had no available units, while others offered only apartments that were in poor shape.
Many East Chicago residents could not afford to move, as they were unable to cover the cost of housing application fees, background checks and other moving expenses. And, while finding somewhere new to live, residents were still expected to pay rent for apartments on contaminated land. "I paid my rent until I left," Daniels said. "They decided they weren't going to give that money back to us."
EPA staff speak to residents of the Superfund site.
Source: Environmental Protection Agency
Once they moved, many former residents had problems adjusting to their new environments. "The only other place [West Calumet residents] could move is what's called 'The Harbor,'" Frank said, a neighborhood where locals have a history of conflict with West Calumet residents. "When East Chicago HUD started moving residents into 'The Harbor,'" he said, "lots of violence occurred."
Daniels is worried that she won't be able to afford to move again if needed. HUD paid for the security deposit for a new home, but should she ever move, HUD will recover that deposit, meaning she will have to come up with the money for a future security deposit.
Daniels also noted that HUD's file on her and her family contains sensitive information like their social security numbers. She worries that some of that information might have gotten misplaced. When she received her file during the move, she said she discovered "at least 30 pages" of other peoples' information.
After all the tumult and hardship, Daniels and her children are still living in a home on the Superfund site, just not in the West Calumet housing complex. "The inside of the house has never been tested," she said. "The water also hasn't been tested, so I still don't know what I'm exposing myself and my children to."
Private homeowners on the Superfund site were left to fend for themselves. "We didn't get anything, honestly, for moving expenses or any kind of compensation at all," said Sara Jimenez, who lived near the old lead smelter. Eager to move, but unable to sell their home, Jimenez and her husband are renting to a woman who was willing to move in despite the lead contamination. "We told her [about the pollution]," Jimenez said. "I said, 'Do you really want to rent this place?'"
They dug into their retirement to secure a new home, but they still miss their old neighborhood. "[My husband and I loved] our house there," she said. "We lived in a real nice community where everybody knew each other." She added, "Our plans were to stay there until we died."
For Jimenez, Daniels and others threatened by lead contamination, the housing crisis has bred mistrust between residents and the EPA, companies that originally polluted the area, and the East Chicago government. Bureaucratic dysfunction left residents with nowhere to turn, and in some cases, nowhere to live. "They act like they're going to do something," Jimenez said. "They don't."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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