East Chicago’s Pleas for Clean Drinking Water Go Unanswered as Trump Moves to Weaken EPA

by Mike Ludwig, Truthout | Report –

Environmental justice is on the chopping block at the Environmental Protection Agency, and that doesn’t bode well for communities like East Chicago, Indiana, where the agency recently discovered that drinking water is contaminated with lead.

Nearly three weeks ago, a number of East Chicago churches and community groups petitioned the EPA to take emergency action and protect the majority-Black community from lead poisoning, which can cause a long list of health problems, especially in children. As of Tuesday, the local leaders and their environmentalist allies had yet to hear back from the agency.

The EPA’s inaction in East Chicago comes as Trump’s administration considers massive budget cuts that could crush the agency’s environmental justice program, which is supposed to ensure the fair treatment of low-income communities, Native communities and people of color under environmental law.

The agency’s environmental justice office is slated to lose all of its funding and be eliminated along with 50 other programs, according to Trump’s budget blueprint released on Thursday. Last week, the office’s longtime administrator resigned in frustration.

While researching soil contamination at the site, the EPA recently discovered that lead was present in East Chicago’s drinking water, due to aging pipes that have not been properly treated for corrosion. Similar problems contributed to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which drew national attention to environmental justice last year and inspired bold campaign statements from then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“This is a perfect example of an environmental injustice,” said Debbie Chizewer, an attorney who teaches at Northwestern University and works with community groups in East Chicago, a small city in northwestern Indiana.

East Chicago residents are now being evacuated from public housing at a Superfund site that is contaminated with lead left behind by heavy manufacturing. Superfund sites are federal priorities for environmental cleanup.

During his confirmation hearings, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick for EPA administrator, told a Senate committee that the crisis in Flint was a “failure at every level of government” and criticized the EPA for waiting to take action until months after the lead problems became public. If faced with a similar situation, Pruitt said, he would use EPA’s emergency authority if a state government failed to act.

Authorities in Indiana declared a state of emergency in East Chicago last month. Then, on March 2, community groups requested that the EPA use its authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure worried residents have access to clean drinking water and tap filters. Officials in Michigan provided clean drinking water to Flint residents after receiving court orders to do so.

A spokesperson for the EPA told Truthout that the agency is reviewing the petition and will continue to work with the city and state to protect residents.

Anjali Waikar, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who served the East Chicago petition, said the EPA’s sluggish response to East Chicago’s emergency request and the White House’s plans to slash budgets both send a “clear message” that the Trump administration will not prioritize low-income communities and communities of color, which disproportionately suffer from pollution.

“This boils down to: How much does the administration value the lives in low-income communities of color?” Waikar said.

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Reprinted with permission from Truthout