The environmental justice movement was born in 1979, when Hazel Johnson founded the People for Community Recovery in order to engage in serious and long overdue repair work in Altgeld Gardens, a Chicago Housing Authority development located on the South Side of Chicago.
Ms. Johnson dedicated years learning about urban environmental issues and networking with other environmental groups. After conducting her research, she learned that many waste disposal companies surrounded Altgeld Gardens as well as manufacturing companies that produced and emitted thousands of pounds of pollutants into the air, water and land. PCR found that due to the heavy concentration of industry, low income residential communities on the Southeast side of Chicago were being exposed to substantial amounts of toxic chemicals that could be responsible for negative health impacts.
Now, less than 10 miles away, in East Chicago, Indiana, the 1100 poor, mostly black residents of the West Calumet Housing Complex have learned that much of the soil outside their homes contains staggering levels of lead and arsenic. They’re now struggling to relocate to new homes (with a deadline of 1 November) after the mayor decided to raze the complex and the adjoining school.
The complex is home to mostly black residents and 670 children who have been playing in the grass that contains 19 times the maximum lead levels advised for bare soil in play areas. Parents in the complex are scrambling to test their children for lead poisoning as they also prepare to uproot their lives and leave their homes. . .
The complex is built just miles north of the USS Smelter and Lead Refinery, where lead and arsenic were used in industrial operations from the early 1900s until 1985. According to a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the areas within a half-mile north or northwest of the site were first referred to by the EPA as a potential Superfund site in 2004 as well as the actual USS Smelter location in 2006.
On top of that, the complex was literally on top of another smelting plant. The Anaconda lead smelter area was considered a lower priority due to its size. However, a letter from Copeland claims that when the Anaconda was demolished, it “may have simply been bulldozed, and that the West Calumet Housing Complex was then built on top of the demolition debris,” the Times of Northwest Indiana reported.
The double whammy of lead and arsenic contaminants had the EPA designate the area a Superfund site in 2009, meaning it became a high priority for the EPA to clean up.
However, a 2010 EPA report downgraded the urgency for the housing complex. The report found that because the numbers of children living with excessive blood lead levels had dropped and were “consistent with the national average.”