New report underscores racial prejudices in Superfund sites
A new report by the Shriver Center on Poverty Law highlights the disproportionate manner in which Superfund sites – home to the country’s most hazardous waste – affect low-income people of color in the U.S.
The report, released Tuesday, underscores what the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development signaled in 2017: 70 percent of the country’s Superfund sites listed on the National Priorities List are located within a mile of government-assisted housing. As a result, over 1,000 federally assisted housing buildings, an estimated 77,000 people, live within a mile of a Superfund site.
For context, Superfund sites can be home to any kind of waste the government deems hazardous and problematic, though the report focuses solely on the adverse effects of lead poisoning.
Tenants living near these sites are predominantly people of color, children, the elderly and disabled people, according to the Shriver Center.
More than 5 million households in the U.S. receive federal housing assistance. The Shriver Center report highlights several different kinds: Public housing, housing choice vouchers, project-based section 8 housing, Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) units and USDA multi-family housing.
In public housing, 43 percent of tenants are Black, 33 percent are white and 21 percent are Latino.
In households that use housing vouchers, 48 percent of people are Black, 31 percent are white and 18 percent are Latino. With section 8 housing, 42 percent of tenants are white, 34 percent are Black and 15 percent are Latino.
Twenty-one percent of people who live in LIHTC units are white, 21 percent are Black and 11 percent are Latino. Finally, in USDA housing, 66 percent of resident are white, 20 percent are Black and 12 percent are Latino.
One of the several case studies in the report was of East Chicago, Ind., where the West Calumet Public Housing Complex is located. Residents of the complex didn’t know they lived on soil that was highly contaminated with lead and arsenic until 2016, when they were ordered to relocate by the city of East Chicago.
This came after the EPA took soil samples in 2014 and 2015 and found that the lead content of the soil was way above its “action level.” The agency measures lead content by parts per million (ppm), with anything over 400 ppm registering as a red flag.
The median lead ppm from the EPA’s survey was 4,980 and scaled all the way to a high of 91,100.
A report in March from the agency “estimates that cleanup to residential reuse standards would cost approximately $28.8 million and would take 7 months. The cleanup would require 2 feet of lead- and arsenic-contaminated soil to be removed, disposed of off-site and replaced with clean soil.”
An EPA spokesperson told The Hill that its cleanup of sites such as East Chicago has “accelerated and improved” under the Trump administration.
“Recent EPA research results indicate that Superfund cleanups lowered elevated blood lead levels by roughly 13 to 26 percent for children living within 2 kilometers of a Superfund site where lead is a contaminant of concern,” the spokesperson added.
However, data released by the EPA at the end of 2019, showed that the White House had the highest number of unfunded projects at Superfund sites in 15 years. Per the data, the agency didn’t have the funds to start cleanup projects at 34 Superfund sites.
Debbie Chizewer, managing attorney for the non-profit Earthjustice’s Midwest office, pushed back on the notion that EPA had adequately stepped up its game.
“They absolutely need to do much better,” Chizewer told The Hill. “They are not communicating effectively to affected communities. … Sometimes EPA will let a housing authority or HUD know about contamination and then that information is not communicated directly to the people who are impacted, so there are breakdowns in systems, some of which are EPA’s fault, some of which are HUD’s fault.”
Chizewer added that because of the communication problems HUD is still moving tenants into buildings that are near contaminated areas.
The Hill has reached out to HUD for comment.