Lorenzo "Bambam" Jenkins, 12, his two-year-old niece Laylay Striblin, and his friend Keanthony Brown, 14, spend time at a park near the West Calumet Housing Complex. Jenkins says he's upset that he has to move but that he'll keep up with his friends like Brown if they are able to stay at the same school.
The West Calumet Housing Complex is home to nearly 1,200 people, located on a seventy nine-acre site in East Chicago, Indiana, which the Environmental Protection Agency has declared hazardous to human health. Up until 1985 a lead refinery, a copper smelter, and a secondary lead smelter were also in the area, and as early as 1987, federal and state agencies investigated the site as a potential cleanup priority. But due to limited resources and an abundance of red tape, the site has remained contaminated for decades.
This July, the residents of West Calumet Housing Complex were told they had a year to move somewhere else. Many say that local officials waited too long before telling them about environmental hazards, and they fear uprooting their families and struggling to find affordable housing nearby. On December 10, the EPA planned a meeting so residents could ask questions about the lead cleanup, but it was canceled at the last minute due to a “possible lapse in funding.”
“This is not really an explanation,” says Roy Morgan, who attends church in East Chicago and is worried about the elderly and young members of his congregation. “I understand about the lapse in funding. But…it’s the EPA, aren’t they supposed to protect the environment? We really need some answers.”
In this photo essay Alyssa Schukar takes a look at the people of East Indiana and an environmental legacy that will affect generations to come.
Photos were taken in summer and fall 2016 and captions reflect the subjects’ ages at the time the photos were shot. Additional reporting by Alex V. Hernandez.
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Claudette Jackson grew up in West Calumet. In 1983, she moved her young family to the housing complex where they still live. After a fruitless search for an apartment in Northwest Indiana, she’s stopped looking. “Everybody’s trying to move out of here at one time. Where are you going to go? There’s nowhere,” she said.
Shantel Allen’s two-year-old daughter Samira Allen’s blood lead levels test results came back at 33, which is remarkably above the CDCs 5 mg/d threshold for action. Allen said her whole family, including 5 young children, herself and her husband, have elevated lead levels. They plan to move to Las Vegas. They show all the signs and symptoms of lead poisoning. They vomit randomly, have headaches, she said.
Lamont Anderson embraces his son Lamont Anderson Jr., 8, at the West Calumet Housing Complex. Anderson Jr.’s blood lead levels test results were above the CDCs 5 mg/d threshold for action. After living in the complex for more than a decade, the family moved to Gary, Indiana earlier this summer.
Logan Anderson, 19 months, plays with his older brother Lamont Anderson Jr., 8, at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana. Anderson Jr.’s blood lead levels test results were above the CDCs 5 mg/d threshold for action. After living in the complex for more than a decade, the family moved to Gary, Indiana earlier this summer.
18-year-old brothers Antwon Jones, at left, and D. Jones pose for a portrait near their home in the West Calumet Housing Complex. “This is where we hang out every day. We are still here with the lead,” D. Jones said.
From left, friends since childhood, Janae Peyton, 13, Ashanti France, 12, Irene Wooley, 13, and Tniyah Foxx, 12, swing at the park near the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana. The playground is part of the Carrie Gosch Elementary School, which has been turned into an EPA office. “All my memories are here. I’ve got to move away from my friends,” Peyton said.
Sherry Hunter grew up in the West Calumet Housing Complex and now owns a home in neighboring zone two. The EPA has classified three zones of concern related to the 79-acre superfund site where a USS Lead facility once stood. Now an activist in the Calumet Lives Matter movement, Hunter says she’s most concerned for senior citizens who are struggling to find new homes.
Stephanie King embraces her youngest son, Josiah King, 3, whose blood lead levels test results were above the CDCs 5 mg/d threshold for action. Two and a half years ago, King left Chicago’s South Side to find a safer environment for her four sons and one daughter. If I’d have known the dirt had lead, he wouldn’t have been out there playing in it,” King said.
Andre Bass, 20, has lived in West Calumet his whole life but will move to Merrillville, Indiana, next week. He plans to stay active in the political movement that aims to give voice to the West Calumet community affected by lead and arsenic in the soil. “I’m marching just like Luther,” he said.
This story was produced in partnership with City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab.
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