State leaders heralded a new law to help East Chicago through its ongoing lead contamination issues as an early step to making the city whole again.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill from freshman Rep. Earl Harris, Jr., D-East Chicago, during a brief ceremony Thursday at the city’s Riley Park, in the heart of the U.S.S. Lead Superfund Site that covers the Calumet neighborhood. Holcomb lauded the partnership between local, state and federal leaders for starting to help East Chicago deal with the contamination and assist residents affected by lead and arsenic in and around their homes.
"This contamination issue has just reminded me that there’s so much more that unites us than divides us," Holcomb said. "And when Hoosiers find themselves in the greatest of needs in the toughest of times, this is when we all come together and do extraordinary things."
"This is yet another step," Holcomb said.
Harris said his father, the late former Rep. Earl Harris Sr., taught him to take care of his home and moving legislation forward to provide relief to residents faced with contamination does just that.
"We know that this problem did not happen in five minutes, in a week, in a month and we know that it’s going to take a little bit of time to get through it and get back to where we should be," Harris said.
The ceremonial signing in East Chicago was one of two the governor held Thursday in Northwest Indiana. Earlier in the day, Holcomb signed legislation to support rail transit development at the South Shore station in Michigan City.
Harris’ bill will compel the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to assist with cleanup of the U.S.S. Lead Superfund site and test soil and water throughout the city; have the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to relocate residents of West Calumet; and push IDEM to do more thorough testing of the city’s water.
"We know this is only part of the process," Harris said, and the continued partnership between the city, residents and state could yield more legislation and action to help the community.
"It’s important we don’t get a negative stigmatism so people don’t want to come here," Harris said.
In February, Holcomb signed a disaster declaration that will bolster efforts to assist residents affected by lead and arsenic contamination around the U.S.S. Lead Superfund site. As a part of that declaration, state officials would ask the EPA for funding to replace lead pipes at the Superfund site.
At Holcomb’s direction, Indiana state agencies have already begun providing assistance to the city, including relocation assistance for the residents of the West Calumet Housing Complex and pledging to provide water filters to residents in the remainder of the Superfund site.
Most recently, Holcomb announced the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority plans to site a new affordable housing development in East Chicago.
"We are getting things done because we are working shoulder to shoulder and taking these steps together," Holcomb said.
Holcomb said progress is being seen because government at all levels and members of the community are collaborating to address issues in East Chicago.
"This put everyone on notice that we work together as one," said East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland. "It was a long time coming."
Through the legislation, the city can restore confidence in its water supply, Copeland said, and dovetail with ongoing efforts to replace lead service lines in East Chicago. In the Superfund site, the lines are being replaced as EPA contractors remediate residents’ property, Copeland said, and work is being done elsewhere in the city in concert with other projects.
Copeland said the city has been clear with the EPA that once demolition is complete, it wants the property cleaned to residential standards, though the future use of the property is not certain. Copeland said once the remediation is done, the city will work with residents, businesses and other stakeholders to determine the future use.
During EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s visit in April, Copeland said he hand-delivered a letter outlining the city’s desire to have that property remediated to residential standards.
"We have already identified what we want it to be," Copeland said.
Holcomb said people are on the right track and it’s important to stay on that course.
Resident Martiza Lopez said Holcomb has maintained a presence in the area and has kept an eye on the situation.
"I’m a firm believer that actions speak louder than words," Lopez said.