EAST CHICAGO — HUD Secretary Ben Carson said it was clear that residents relocated from the West Calumet Housing Complex because of soil contamination felt uprooted and that some were “inconvenienced.”
However, Carson said it was important to recognize it was necessary to remove residents from harm’s way and the relocation was done in a “good way.”
Residents, who spoke to reporters after their meeting with Carson and other officials inside the old Carrie Gosch Elementary School, said the relocation was far from a success and rejected statements by public officials that East Chicago could be a national model or blueprint for how to handle similar challenges in other communities.
“Maybe a blueprint of what not to do,” said Tara Adams, a former West Calumet resident, while meeting with reporters after public officials concluded their news conference.
“Even before the announcement was made, we should have been involved,” she said.
A total of 12 residents were permitted inside the meeting with Carson, U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, and Gov. Eric Holcomb, a spokeswoman for the governor said.
Residents living at more than 1,000 properties in Calumet and East Calumet were not told to leave their homes before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began removing lead- and arsenic-contaminated soil.
Carson said he wanted to hear firsthand from residents about the challenges they’ve faced. The health of residents, particularly the young and vulnerable, was of particular concern, he said.
However, Carson didn’t want to spend time focused on laying blame, he said. The complex was built in the early 1970s, before people became fully aware of the dangers of lead and arsenic exposure, he said.
Adams said she and other residents aren’t looking to place blame on public officials responsible for building the complex in the footprint of the former Anaconda Lead Products smelter in the 1970s.
“What about right now? What about what happened last year?” she asked. “We can place blame there. It wasn’t right. It’s all about compassion.”
Carson and others stressed that officials at the local, state and federal level have come together during the past year to address the challenges. All of the public officials said they remain committed to continuing that cooperation.
Donnelly said the relocation wasn’t perfect, but the officials would continue working to improve.
“The commitment we make is we’ll be here with residents every step of the way,” he said.
Young and Visclosky both talked about ensuring the city has sufficient resources to address the challenges. Visclosky said he felt a particular responsibility, because he is the only member of Northwest Indiana’s congressional delegation who serves on an appropriations committee.
List of demands presented
Members of Calumet Lives Matter, the Community Strategy Group and East Chicago/Calumet Coalition Community Advisory Group presented Carson and his staff with a list of demands.
The demands to HUD include making federal funds available for a recovery fund to help residents affected by the crisis, giving former West Calumet residents the first right to any new housing developed in the city, and requiring a full environmental review of the former complex site before approving a demolition plan.
James Cunningham, deputy administrator for HUD Region 5, said there is no firm timeline for approval of ECHA's proposed demolition plan.
Residents also want HUD to review the East Chicago Housing Authority’s programs and statements about lead abatement in its units and to investigate ECHA’s statements about lead-based paint in its units and its employees’ conduct during the relocation process.
The groups gave HUD a deadline to respond to their demands, said the Rev. Cheryl Rivera, of the Community Strategy Group. Carson and other public officials offered no assurances any of the demands would be met, she said.
Residents said Carson listened, but offered no insights into what the future might hold for the shuttered complex or its former residents.
"I just don't feel hopeful after this meeting," said Sherry Hunter, who has advocated on behalf of former West Calumet residents.
Copeland and Donnelly said during the news conference they support giving former West Calumet residents the first opportunity to move into any new housing.
The Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority announced Monday it is advancing a plan to develop more affordable housing in Northwest Indiana. The state received bids Monday from six development teams, and the authority’s board is scheduled to select two teams later this month.
At least one of two projects would be in East Chicago, but no specifics about the location or design were available yet. Ground would not be broken until 2019.
Adams said there may be some residents who will always want to move home, but time could be a deterrent for her family. Once she’s established in another community, she likely will be reluctant to move her family back.
“People don’t think about the stress for the children,” she said.