An emergency usually arrives as a bad surprise that no one saw coming because the truth was unknowable.

Based on that limited definition, little that's now happening to 1,200 East Chicago residents and their 600 children is a surprise at this moment, more than any other moment for 100 years.

A disaster and a crisis that demand decisive action? Yes, very likely.

A mind-numbing failure of government to hold polluters accountable? Seems so.

East Chicago government owns a piece, too. No one stopped the easiest, cheapest answer to housing the city's low-income residents. All the families needed to risk were the lives of their children. But no one asked them.

Very likely that is all happening to the people who live in East Chicago's West Calumet Housing Complex.

The arsenic lingering beneath the apartments kills rats, and humans, too, if they get too much exposure. That's basic science, too.

Deadly? Yes, if you believe the uncontroverted science that residual lead in the ground and air can permanently stunt life.

This event might become as horrific as the contaminated city water supply that still haunts Flint, Mich., and led last week to criminal charges against six state officials.

Flint created a new problem and hid it.

But the toxic residue that lies beneath the unknowing residents at West Calumet and perhaps a nearby elementary school is no mystery and no surprise.

People knew, but did nothing.

The truth and legacy have been there just beneath the surface for decades. The slow, deadly chemicals sat there long before the early 1970s when the city built the public project it now says must be razed.

Thousands of children and parents have played in the complex's deadly dirt. No one seems to have worried in the late 1960s and early 1970s if the three toxic industrial parcels were safe. It was cheap and easy.

Whatever repair occurs soon barely intervenes for those there now. But who speaks for thousands of others, some of whose lives might have been shortened and damaged?

DuPont and Atlantic Richfield traded jobs and taxes for smelting there. When there was insufficient profit in better living through chemistry, they closed up shop.

The same lead and arsenic were there in 2004 when Indiana's Department of Environmental Management tested 40 samples and found the ugliness too costly and dangerous to tackle itself. So it turned the site over to federal EPA's deeper pockets.

Here, we don't want it. You take it.

The people? No mention of them.

By 2014, Indiana, EPA and the Department of Justice let Dupont and Richfield trade a $26 million cleanup ransom to let the chemical giants off the liability hook.

An air quality monitor in East Chicago spiked above federal lead standards in 2014 after the EPA's deal with the corporate owners.

Indiana's IDEM was surprised. IDEM Commissioner Tom Easterly's surprise was itself something of a surprise.

Indiana's IDEM seem oddly mystified by what might cause lead contamination at a site where industrial lead had been smelted for a century. IDEM seemed more concerned about keeping the data from causing Washington regulatory blowback.

Atlantic Richfield and E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co. would not have been so surprised. They knew what they put in the ground. They knew what it would do.

In fact, all the experts paid to protect public health, or earn profit from ignoring the peril knew the danger. Only the children and parents there didn't.

What's happened since 2014? Not much, it seems.

So new tests show the same problem is too dire now for people to stay. The city wants the feds to fund relocating the 1,200 left to fend for themselves.

There's no new emergency. No new lead and arsenic.

It was there in 1920. In 1940. In 1950 and every day since where the U.S.S. Lead facility dirtied the 79-acre tract. A copper smelter, lead refinery and lead smelter belched in the neighborhood from 1906 to 1985.

The ironies are deeply sad.

As recently as two years ago, East Chicago had forged a plan to redevelop the housing project and upgrade the entire neighborhood into a subsidized commercial residence.

DuPont made at least $1 billion last year. Atlantic Richfield is now part of BP. Its profits also use nine zeroes to describe.

They both escaped legal liability for what the pillaging might eventually cost in cleanup money.

And in East Chicago's case, what they cost in human suffering.

David Rutter is a columnist with the Post-Tribune of Merrillville. Contact him at david.rutter@live.com.

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