Scott Pruitt is facing the first big test of his promise to protect people from pollution as President Trump's pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with a petition to take emergency action in East Chicago, Indiana, a majority-Black city that has been struggling with lead contamination in both soil and drinking water.
Along with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, East Chicago has brought national attention to the movement for environmental justice and the issue of lead contamination, which can cause an array of health problems, especially in children.
On Thursday, a coalition of community and environmental groups petitioned the EPA to order state and local officials to provide free bottled water and tap filters to East Chicago residents while authorities work to fix contaminated pipes, or provide alternative sources of safe drinking water itself. The petitioners are also asking the agency to order citywide testing of drinking water and confirm that state regulators are working in compliance with federal laws.
In 2016, a Reuters investigation found that children living near a Superfund site in East Chicago that used to host heavy, lead-based industries had elevated levels of lead in their blood. The soil in the area is contaminated with lead, and this week federal housing authorities approved a mandatory evacuation and relocation plan for residents of the embattled West Calumet Housing Project, which is located in the Superfund area. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signed an emergency declaration for the city last month.
Last fall, the EPA discovered that lead was also leaching from corroded pipes carrying drinking water to 40 percent of homes tested in a pilot study of drinking water at the Superfund site. The agency determined that the city had a "system-wide" contamination problem due to insufficient corrosion control treatments -- one of the same factors the contributed to the water crisis in Flint.
"The disastrous effects of lead in our soil have already taken a toll on our community -- but lead coming through our taps takes this mess to a whole new, unacceptably horrible level," said East Chicago resident Sherry Hunter in a statement.
Scott Pruitt's Promise
The petition points out that, during his confirmation hearings, Pruitt told a Senate committee that the Flint tragedy was a "failure at every level of government" and criticized the EPA for failing to take action until months after the lead problems became public.
"If confirmed and faced with a similar situation, I would inform the state that EPA will take action if they fail to do so, and use EPA’s emergency authority if the state fails to act," Pruitt said.
The former attorney general from Oklahoma made a name for himself working closely with polluters to challenge a long list of EPA regulations in court, and environmental groups opposed his recent confirmation as EPA administrator across the board. While Pruitt is seen as central to Trump's deregulatory agenda, he did promise to promote the EPA's "core mission" of environmental oversight and enforcement.
"This is a real opportunity for the Trump administration to take a stand and ensure that something like the Flint water crisis does not occur on its watch," said Anjali Waikar, an attorney with the National Resource Defense Council who helped prepare the petition.
Nationally, about 18 million people get their drinking water from systems that received lead violations in 2015, but environmentalists worry that number would be higher if it weren't for faulty testing and lax enforcement, according to a 2016 NRDC report.
Trump Wants to Slash the EPA's Budget
The calls for federal intervention in East Indiana come as the Trump administration proposes deep cuts to the EPA that would eliminate 20 percent of its staff. Clean air and water programs, as well as grants that help states clean up old industrial sites, are also on the chopping block, according to reports. The NRDC claims these cuts could impact the agency's ability to enforce public protections like those needed in East Chicago.
"There is an issue about funding cuts, but funding cuts can't cripple an agency that exists to protect public health," Waikar told Truthout.
Trump also attacked the EPA over its handling of Flint on the campaign trail, although his comments read like a sensational attack on an agency he also routinely promised to dismantle. As governor of Indiana, Mike Pence rejected a request from East Chicago officials to declare an emergency in the city shortly before leaving to serve as vice president under Trump, but that was before the results of the EPA pilot study were made public, according to the NRDC.
The EPA came under national scrutiny during the Flint crisis in part because it failed to issue an emergency order requiring federal oversight and monitoring until January 2016, several months after the crisis became public. The agency's inspector general later determined that the EPA had the authority to step in far earlier.
The EPA order in Flint did not specifically require bottled water and tap filter distribution for residents, and advocates feared state officials were not acting fast enough to ensure residents had safe water to drink. In November, a federal judge ordered bottled water and tap filter distribution in the city while its pipes are replaced and repeatedly sided with residents after state officials challenged the scope of the order in court.
"The court in Flint underscored that safe, clean drinking water is a basic right for all Americans, and the EPA should not drag its feet and make the determination months down the line while East Chicagoans continue to drink contaminated water," Waikar said. "EPA must act now."
Waikar said the case set an important precedent for responding to the problems in East Chicago, where the EPAs own data currently shows that drinking water is contaminated with unsafe levels of lead. State and local authorities have been working to replace water infrastructure and test residents for lead poisoning in response to the governor's recent emergency order, but the petitioners want Pruitt and EPA to step in and ensure that clean water is available to all residents until the city's supply is declared safe to drink.
"We live in America; we should not be left drinking poison while officials ponder away at long-term solutions," Hunter said.
Lead contamination will also be a challenge for Ben Carson, Trump's pick for secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who was confirmed to the position in the Senate on Thursday. More than 2.5 million residential building subsidized by HUD contain hazardous levels of lead, particularly from old paint, and the department ramped up efforts to respond to the problem shortly before President Obama left office.