Lead and Arsenic Poisoning by U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery in East Chicago, Indiana over the last Century

by N. Hom

Site Description:

East Chicago is in the northwest corner of Indiana, near the border between Indiana and Illinois and on the coastline of Lake Michigan. The small city of approximately 28 thousand people is 43% African American and 51% Hispanic. Home to the old U.S. Smelting and Lead Refinery. The EPA has designated the surrounding area as the USS Lead Superfund Site. What are the health effects of lead and arsenic poisoning on the population? Why did it take so long for the cleanup and what role did race play in the delayed cleanup. How did the local community bring national attention to their small corner of Indiana. The East Chicago cleanup operation that is currently ongoing matters because it can teach us how to solve these kinds of issues moving forward.

Author Biography:

I am a third-generation immigrant, half Chinese and Cuban, and an undergraduate student at NJIT. I was drawn to East Chicago after reading about the lead contamination in East Chicago in 2017-18 when I started college.

Final Report:

Primary Sources:

United States, Congress, National Priorities List. U.S. SMELTER AND LEAD REFINERY, INC. East Chicago, Indiana Lake County , 2008. Regulations.gov, https://www.regulations.gov/docket/EPA-HQ-SFUND-2008-0577/document. Accessed 18 Oct. 2021.

This is from the EPA and includes the basic information about the site from when this report was published back in 2008. The contaminants and potential impacts to the community are briefly explained. The database also contains many other EPA documents pertaining to the East Chicago site.

“USS Lead Sampling Data Maps.” Epa.maps.arcgis.com, Environmental Protection Agency, https://epa.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=d45c8610b7364b8f931fdbb748d607c1.

This is an interactive map created by the EPA of the tested levels of lead in different areas of the superfund site. The data shows which lots in the site have how much contamination which helps show to the progress of the current cleanup operation.

United States, Congress, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Public Health Assessment for U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery Inc. (USS Lead) East Chicago, Indiana, 2011.

This is a report from the DHHS that contains information regarding the heatlh risks posed by the contamination and what should be done moving forward(page 20-22). The rest of the document contains detailed maps of the site, charts of children’s blood lead levels, and lead levels in specific properties.

Cross, Lauren. “’We Can’t Trust You People,’ Residents Living with Lead, Arsenic Contamination Tell U.S. EPA.” Nwitimes.com, 21 July 2019, https://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/lake/we-cant-trust-you-people-residents-living-with-lead-arsenic-contamination-tell-u-s-epa/article_1e7e7fb5-17ff-50e6-bd23-52f67c665d1f.html.

The residents of East Chicago attended a public hearing regarding the EPAs clean-up plan. Many residents protested the plan and said it did not go far enough and would hinder redevelopment in the future. The residents supported an alternative plan called 4D. After the public hearing, many including the mayor, have openly criticized and opposed the EPAs current cleanup plan and supported 4D. In 2019 the POTUS was Donald J. Trump, whose vice president was the former Indiana governor Mike Pence. It’s not a surprise that the residents didn’t trust the Trump administration when Pence refused to declare the USS Lead site an emergency while he was governor.

One resident named Joseph Dragovich was cited in the article as being “frustrated about the erosion of trust between residents and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, citing a decades-long delay in cleaning up the USS Lead Superfund site. “Why not just take all the soil out? It’s beyond me,” Dragovich said. “You know the trust around here is shot. You can tell people that you’re going to come back in five years and monitor and look at it, but around here, it’s a joke. We can’t trust you people. That trust was broken a long time ago. You’re not going to get it back … Stop playing games.” The public hearing seems to have changed official’s minds as well. The mayor openly sided with the 4D only after the meeting took place. “Mayor Anthony Copeland in recent months to EPA — in both writing and in private conversations — about his vision for the property, agency officials have said. Last fall, Copeland informed EPA Region 5 officials of talks he’s had with interested commercial and industrial developers, leading EPA to believe the site’s future may not be residential. But this month, Copeland appeared to have a sudden change of heart, and stated in a letter to EPA that he now sides with residents’ calls for new housing there, and pushed for Alternative 4D.”

Secondary Sources:

    Engineering and Mining Journal , vol. 119, McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1925, pp. 116, 154. 

    This book contains information regarding mining and its associated industries like metal refining from the time period of January 1st to June 30th, 1925 in the United States. The process of how USS Lead refined lead using the new at the time, Parkes Process, is briefly explained on page 154. This source is excellent regarding what the USS Lead facility was doing in regards to the refining of lead near the opening of the facility. 

    Valliant, Derek. “East Chicago, IN.” Encyclopedia of Chicago, http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/402.html. Accessed 7 Oct. 2021. 

    This is a page of an encyclopedia about Chicago, titled Encyclopedia of Chicago. The page includes information about the founding and early days of East Chicago. It also includes brief explanations of the kinds of industries that were present, who immigrated there from where and when, and the religious diversity of the small city.

    Hurley, Andrew. Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2009. 

    This book is about the environmental damage done to a neighboring city, Gary, Indiana. Hurley focuses specifically on the steel mill in Gary and how divisions of race and class affected people’s exposure to dangerous levels of pollution. This story is similar to East Chicago where divisions of race and class left those exposed to dangerous levels of lead and arsenic.

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