Indiana Housing Complex Residents Warned About Lead

Like many American cities at the time, Austin, Texas, in the 1930s was a racially segregated place -- including with its public housing.

More than 1,000 residents of a northwest Indiana public housing complex have been in a state of panic and uncertainty since authorities informed them last month that their homes must be destroyed because of serious lead contamination.

A warning this summer not to allow children to play in the dirt and to wash toys because the soil is soaked with hazardous levels of lead and arsenic was the first many residents of the low-income complex had heard about plans to remove tainted soil that date back to at least 2012.

“Somebody dropped the ball somewhere,” said state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, an East Chicago resident who began getting calls from panicked tenants in late July asking for help. “Maybe it was intentional, or maybe by mistake. Maybe it was negligence.”

The lead plant closed in 1985, but despite known hazards, neighboring areas including the public housing complex and hundreds of private residences were not added to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s priority list for cleanup until 2009.

By 2012, a plan for hauling away tons of soil from hundreds of yards was in place and more extensive tests came back showing alarmingly high lead levels, including in the upper six inches of soil in some yards in the public housing complex. The EPA gave the results to the city of East Chicago in May and said it wanted to start digging out the bad soil this summer.

Signs went up warning residents to keep their children away from bare soil in playgrounds and yards. EPA contractors spread rubber mulch as a temporary covering.

Mayor Anthony Copeland, who was already skeptical of the EPA plan, urged residents in a letter in late July to temporarily relocate. Days later, the city sent another letter informing them it was seeking to demolish the entire 346-unit complex and they must find new housing as soon as possible.

“I was like, ‘Wait a minute. What is he saying? How long have you known this?'” said Daniels, 40, who grew up in the area and has lived in the complex for nearly 13 years. “They were doing testing all of these years and they never said anything. That was kind of shocking.”

City attorney Carla Morgan says the city only found out about the specific lead levels in May and the mayor acted immediately.

“When he found out for the first time what the levels actually were he started asking very adamantly that the residents be immediately relocated,” she said.

Lead tests are being offered to the East Chicago residents. Of more than 400 preliminary blood screenings so far, 29 have come back high, including 21 children under age 6, according to the Indiana State Department of Health, which is assisting local health authorities.