EAST CHICAGO—Until Carmencita Robinson received a letter last July stating that her public housing complex would need to be evacuated due to toxic levels of lead and arsenic in the soil, she’d had no idea she’d been living on contaminated land for nearly a decade.
“I felt betrayed,” she said. “They knew that there was lead, and they misled the families that were there because they continuously accepted our rent and gave us no notice of lead.”
A month later came the second blow. When Mayor Anthony Copeland learned the extent of the damage, he directed residents to evacuate the West Calumet Complex and announced plans to demolish it. Residents received Section 8 housing vouchers and were told they had 60 days to secure housing.
“I felt like I was just pushed out of some place that I took a lot of pride in,” says Robinson, who had planned to grow old in her apartment. “Nobody said, ‘We apologize for putting you all through this,’ or ‘I am sorry that this has to be done that way.’ No remorse, no anything. That hurt. I could have lost my life there. My kids could have gotten sicker there. How can you do people like that?”
Robinson was one of thousands of residents of West Calumet whose homes were sitting on top of the USS Lead Superfund Site. But her East Chicago complex is hardly a unique case. Studies dating back decades show waste sites, landfills, and hazardous facilities are disproportionately located in poor and minority neighborhoods. And with continuous slashes to Superfund’s budget over the years (it gets $1.1 billion a year, about half of what it did in 1999), cleanups have moved at a glacial pace.