The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent out a notice on Wednesday announcing a series of upcoming public meetings in which it will consider gutting rules and regulations meant to protect the public from lead and hazardous chemicals, including training programs designed to prevent children from being exposed to lead paint.
The notice went out at 2:39 p.m., just as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was meeting with residents of a neighborhood in East Chicago, Indiana, that has been contaminated with lead for decades. Six weeks after beleaguered residents petitioned his agency to take emergency action to protect them from lead contamination in their drinking water, Scott Pruitt was visiting East Chicago as part of the kick-off tour for his term as administrator of the EPA.
"That timing is discouraging, obviously," said Debbie Chizewer, an attorney at an environmental law clinic at Northwestern University who works with East Chicago residents and was present during Pruitt's visit.
The EPA said the it scheduled the reviews of the lead standards in order to comply with President Trump's executive order requiring federal agencies to identify regulations that should trimmed or eliminated. Trump tapped Pruitt to run the EPA earlier this year, praising a long list of legal challenges he filed against federal environmental regulations as attorney general of Oklahoma.
Chizewer said the residents who met with Pruitt had a chance to share their concerns about cleanup plans and their stories about living with legacy industrial pollution. She hopes their input will be the start of a "steady stream of information" that will convince the EPA not to repeal or weaken its standards and rules for lead.
"Pruitt did not make any specific commitments, but did indicate that he would make sure the cleanup was done right," Chizewer told Truthout. "And now our job is to make sure that he follows through on those promises."
Pruitt's visit to East Chicago comes as the White House and Republicans in Congress work to gut environmental protections and make deep cuts to the EPA's budget. Pruitt is currently pushing his "back-to-basics" agenda, a plan to trim the scope of the EPA's mission and return enforcement power to state regulators.
Environmentalists say the crisis in East Chicago is a textbook example of why state and local governments can't always be relied on to protect public health, and sometimes federal intervention is necessary.
"It's important that he showed his faced in the community," said Anjali Waikar, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who filed the emergency petition on behalf of residents. "The troubling part is, the EPA is essentially offloading responsibility to the states without the resources necessary for the states to do their jobs and ensure basic protections for public health."
Activists and residents rallied in East Chicago before Pruitt arrived, demanding more federal assistance for East Chicago and, in particular, for the residents of the West Calumet Housing Complex.
Rev Rivera (Comm Strategy Grp) opens the rally demanding that Pruitt send more funding & support for EC residents pic.twitter.com/KFh5y5Y9Jo— The People's Lobby (@peopleslobbyusa) April 19, 2017
West Calumet is located on a site that used to host a lead smelter and other heavy industries decades ago, and is listed as a national priority for environmental cleanup. The soil in the area is still contaminated with dangerous levels of lead, and residents of the housing project were recently ordered to evacuate, although some have been unable to afford to leave.
While studying the soil contamination at the site, the EPA discovered in December another serious public health danger: Lead is leaching into East Chicago's drinking water because the water supply has not received proper anti-corrosion treatments. A lack of treatment caused a lead contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, where authorities recently agreed to replace the city's drinking water lines completely.
Flint and East Chicago are both majority-Black cities with a high number of lower-income residents, and their lead troubles have brought national attention to the movement for environmental justice. During his confirmation hearings, Pruitt pledged that, if faced with a situation similar to Flint as administrator, he would swiftly take emergency action where a state government failed to act.
However, the EPA has yet to accept East Chicago's petition for emergency action, and Waikar said Pruitt did not address the petition during his visit on Wednesday.
In a statement, the EPA said that, under Pruitt's leadership, the agency has pledged to coordinate efforts with the city and state to clean up the contaminated soil in East Chicago and replace the lead service lines that have made the city's water unsafe to drink. The agency also announced it would allocate $16.5 million in funding for water infrastructure upgrades.
The EPA also provided bottles of water and filters to 54 nearby homes while working on the Superfund site. However, Waikar said the EPA's study confirmed that lead contamination in drinking water is citywide. The EPA, she said, needs to ensure that everyone in East Chicago has access to safe drinking water while cleanup continues and water lines are replaced.
She added that the agency should also provide oversight of water quality, because "it's clear that the city and the state have not done a sufficient job" protecting public health.
"EPA can't just come in, identify a problem and not take active measures to address that problem," Waikar said. "Simply identifying a public health threat is not enough, especially in a community like East Chicago, which is among the most vulnerable communities in the country."
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