The federal EPA administrator traveled to East Chicago Wednesday, months after the agency discovered dangerously high levels of lead and arsenic in the city’s soil.
“The reason I’m here is because it’s important that we restore confidence for the people here in this community that we’re going to get it right going forward,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
The northwest Indiana city is now part of a superfund clean-up site after last year’s discovery, which forced residents to evacuate and leave their homes.
“It is one of the hardest decisions I had to make to tell people to leave their homes,” said East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland. “But I know the irreparable harm that could have happened to them.”
Demonstrators rallied in the lead-contaminated community to protest Pruitt’s visit.
“Folks are sitting on poison Scott Pruitt and you need to understand that,” said Sheila Garland with National Nurses United.
The visit from Pruitt comes amid reports that the agency was considering closing the EPA Chicago office responsible for environmental regulation of six states and the Great Lakes.
“It bears mentioning that EPA Region 5 is not just the largest - it’s also got a reputation for being one of the best in terms of enforcement and getting out there in front of issues,” said Meleah Geertsma, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Acting Regional Administrator Robert Kaplan dismissed the reports and reassured staff once again on Wednesday.
“As I talked to some of the people traveling with the administrator today - they have reaffirmed that there were no discussions about shutting the Chicago office,” Kaplan said.
Pruitt did not respond to the question when asked Wednesday.
Still, officials called his visit to East Chicago significant.
“I’m pleased with him making this his first visit and our collaboration will continue and we’ll get this right and we won’t leave until we do,” said Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb.