The soil in two small, Indiana towns is seeped with lead, but the smelting facilities that caused the problem are still operating along the border.
The boundaries of the towns, Hammond and Whiting, surround an old Federated Metals smelting facility, which operated from 1937 to 1983. Though the area has been polluted for decades, regulators are only just starting to act. The smelter pumped out heavy metals through much of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until 2016 that EPA employees dug up old files on polluted areas of Indiana and started to address the problem.
And the situation is bad: The ground in the towns has levels of contamination that are up to five times the federal lead standard for areas in which kids play, according to new EPA data. And an EPA sampling of soil at 30 homes around the facility in the last six months revealed 25 had high levels of lead. One of those yards clocked in at 2,760 parts per million (ppm); the EPA’s upper limit for soil that children play in is 400 ppm of lead.
Hammond and Whiting are located just northwest of East Chicago, another Indiana town that’s become infamous for its flourishing lead problem and weak regulatory responses. A review of Indiana Department of Health data by the Chicago Tribune revealed that about 8 percent of East Chicago kids tested between 2005 and 2015 for lead had high levels of the metal in their blood.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt visited the town in April last year to talk about the efforts of the EPA’s Superfund program, which focuses on cleaning up contamination, including lead.
“We are going to get it right going forward,” Pruitt said at a press conference during the East Chicago trip.
But even as remediation efforts move forward, Indiana state regulators in December decided to green light another lead operation outside Hammond and Whiting. A new smelting facility, operated by Whiting Metals, took over the old site and has since opened for business. How much lead the facility is currently emitting into the air remains unclear; the factory is small enough that it doesn’t need to report its emissions to the EPA.
Pruitt visited the site in April, along with Indiana's governor, Eric Holcomb, although the event was closed to the press. After, he visited a resident’s home, surrounded by his enormous security detail, and headed to the National Mascot Hall of Fame for a visit that was also closed to the press.
But the press was there when Hammond resident David Dabertin accosted Holcomb, sans Pruitt.
“You are telling these people there is lead in their backyard, but they just permitted that facility to produce lead,” Dalbertin told the governor in the encounter, which aired on the local news. “That’s a disconnect.”
Cover image: A sign, placed by the EPA, warns people not to play on the lawn at the West Calumet Housing Complex on April 19, 2017 in East Chicago, Indiana. Scott Olson/Getty Images.