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.
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The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is the deepest and longest period of malaise in a dozen years. Our colleagues at the University of Vermont have concluded this by analyzing posts on Twitter. The Vermont Complex Systems Center studies 50 million tweets a day, scoring the "happiness" of people's words to monitor the national mood. That mood today is at its lowest point since 2008 when they started this project.
The Hedonometer measures happiness through analysis of key words on Twitter, which is now used by one in five Americans. This chart covers 18 months from early 2019 to July 2020, showing major dips in 2020. hedonometer.org<p>These same tweets also indicate a potential salve. Before pandemic lockdowns began, doctoral student <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0P0ZYbIAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Aaron Schwartz</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10045" target="_blank">compared tweets before, during, and after visits to 150 parks, playgrounds and plazas</a> in San Francisco. He found that park visits corresponded with a spike in happiness, followed by an afterglow lasting up to four hours.</p><p>Tweets from parks contained fewer negative words such as "no," "not" and "can't," and fewer first-person pronouns like "I" and "me." It seems that nature makes people more positive and less self-obsessed.</p><p>Parks keep people happy in times of global crisis, economic shutdown and public anger. Research has also shown that transmission rates for COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Is-risk-of-coronavirus-transmission-lower-15287602.php" target="_blank">much lower outdoors than inside</a>. As scholars who study <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=yFzb2EUAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">conservation</a> and how nature <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=CCnUeN8AAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">contributes to human well-being</a>, we see opening up parks and creating new ones as a straightforward remedy for Americans' current blues.</p>
Park Visits Are Up During the Pandemic<p>According to the Hedonometer, sentiments expressed online started trending lower in mid-March as the impacts of the pandemic became clear. As lockdowns continued, they registered the lowest sentiment scores on record. Then in late May, effects from George Floyd's death in police custody and the following protests and police response once again could be seen on Twitter. May 31, 2020 was the saddest day of the project.</p><p>Recent surveys of park visitors around the University of Vermont have shown people <a href="https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/sd3h6" target="_blank">using green spaces more</a> since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Many people reported that parks were highly important to their well-being during the pandemic.</p>
<div id="4c7e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc0ac146ab2a94228f32d973fc2ab272"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1289428912879964160" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">#Goldengatepark #sf #quarantinemood https://t.co/9l3ufnbkt6</div> — Suvd (@Suvd)<a href="https://twitter.com/Suvd19486406/statuses/1289428912879964160">1596258783.0</a></blockquote></div><p>The powerful effects of nature are strongest in large parks with more trees, but smaller neighborhood parks also provide a significant boost. Their impact on happiness is real, measurable and lasting.</p><p>Twitter records show that parks increase happiness to a level similar to the bounce at Christmas, which typically is the happiest day of the year. Schwartz has since expanded his <a href="https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.10658.pdf" target="_blank">Twitter study</a> to the 25 largest cities in the U.S. and found this bounce everywhere.</p><p>Parks and public spaces won't cure COVID-19 or stop police brutality, but they are far more than playgrounds. There is growing evidence that parks contribute to mental and physical health in a range of communities.</p><p>In a 2015 study, for example, Stanford researchers sent people out for one of two walks: through a local park or on a busy street. Those who walked in nature showed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005" target="_blank">improved moods and better memory performance</a> compared to the urban group. And a team led by <a href="https://penniur.upenn.edu/people/eugenia-gina-south" target="_blank">Gina South</a> of the University of Pennsylvania showed in a 2018 study that greening and cleaning up blighted vacant lots in Philadelphia <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298" target="_blank">reduced local residents' feelings of depression, worthlessness and poor mental health</a>.</p>
Creative Strategies<p>It isn't easy to create new parks on the scale of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or the Washington Mall, but smaller projects can expand outdoor space. Options include greening vacant lots, closing streets and investing in existing parks to make them safer, greener and shadier and support wildlife.</p><p>These initiatives don't have to be capital-intensive. In the University of Pennsylvania study, for example, renovating a vacant lot by removing trash, planting grass and trees and installing a low fence cost only about US$1,600.</p><p>Urban green space is most needed in neighborhoods that have lacked funding for parks, especially given <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html" target="_blank">COVID-19's disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people</a>.</p><p>Cities can also create parklike spaces by <a href="https://theconversation.com/with-fewer-cars-on-us-streets-now-is-the-time-to-reinvent-roadways-and-how-we-use-them-140408" target="_blank">closing streets to cars</a>. Many cities worldwide are currently retooling their transportation systems for the post-COVID-19 world in order to <a href="https://thecityfix.com/blog/bicycles-slower-speeds-livable-city-paris-mayor-anne-hidalgo-plans-ambitious-second-term-dario-hidalgo/" target="_blank">reallocate public space</a>, widen sidewalks and make more space for nature.</p><p>Urban designers, artists, ecologists and other citizens can play a direct role, too, creating pop-up parks and green spaces. Some advocates <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-15/a-brief-history-of-park-ing-day" target="_blank">transform parking spaces into mini-parks</a> with grass, potted trees and seating for just the time on the meter, to make a larger point about turning so much public space over to cars.</p><p>Or cities can invest a little more. Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Arlington, Virginia, have won <a href="https://www.tpl.org/parkscore" target="_blank">national recognition</a> for their ambitious investments in public park systems. These areas could serve as models for neighborhoods that lack access to parks.</p>
<div id="25fd0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="383f0d2df0237e9359c30dcce6cd6c42"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1276558744835379201" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Looking to safely get outside? Check out the best parks for social distancing in this year's top ten ParkScore citi… https://t.co/HJjEtDsrTD</div> — The Trust for Public Land (@The Trust for Public Land)<a href="https://twitter.com/tpl_org/statuses/1276558744835379201">1593190296.0</a></blockquote></div>
A New Park Deal?<p>The United States has historically driven economic recovery with major infrastructure investments, like the New Deal in the 1930s and the 2009 <a href="https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act.asp" target="_blank">American Reinvestment and Recovery Act</a>. Such investments could easily include nature-positive spaces.</p><p>Parks are not panaceas, as evidenced by the widely publicized <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/nyregion/amy-cooper-false-report-charge.html" target="_blank">racist confrontation between a white woman and a Black birder</a> in New York's Central Park in early July. But Hedonometer data add to a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903?utm_source=miragenews&utm_medium=miragenews&utm_campaign=news" target="_blank">growing body of evidence</a> that they provide <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116" target="_blank">clear mental health benefits</a>. Creating and expanding parks also <a href="https://www.nrpa.org/contentassets/f568e0ca499743a08148e3593c860fc5/economic-impact-study-summary.pdf" target="_blank">generates jobs and economic activity</a>, with much of the money spent locally.</p><p>We believe investments in nature are well worth it, offering both short-term solace in difficult times and long-term benefits to health, economies and communities.</p>
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By Gianna-Carina Grün
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