Majority of Superfund Sites Near Low-Income Housing

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By Sylvia Carignan

About 70 percent of the country’s contaminated sites are near low-income housing, two federal agencies have found.

About 1,000 low-income housing properties are within a mile of current or proposed National Priorities List sites, according to an analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The two agencies are still determining whether residents near those sites have any risk of exposure to that contamination.

The list, also known as Superfund, contains the most contaminated properties in the country, as recognized by the EPA. There are about 1,400 sites that are or may become part of the list.

The low-income housing properties are either HUD’s public housing or residences where recipients of HUD-issued housing vouchers are living.

The two agencies signed an agreement Jan. 11 to collaborate and started meeting quarterly this year to share data on the sites.

“There is a significant overlap,” said Jim Woolford, director of the EPA’s Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation.

Tracking Lead Contamination

According to Woolford, the project started because of EPA’s recent involvement with a National Priorities List site, named U.S.S. Lead, in East Chicago, Ind.

The area is a former industrial site, contaminated with lead and arsenic. Public housing was built decades ago atop a lead smelter, said Debbie Chizewer, environmental advocate at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic.

In 2014 and 2015, the EPA took soil samples at the public housing complex and found lead levels as high as 11,700 parts per million at surface level. According to the EPA, lead concentrations above 400 parts per million in bare soil in children’s play areas, or above 1,200 parts per million in the rest of the yard, are considered a hazard.

The EPA also found elevated concentrations of lead in East Chicago’s water due to little or no corrosion controls in lead water pipes.

“It’s like layer upon layer of problems,” said Anjali Waikar, staff attorney in environmental justice at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) declared a disaster emergency at the East Chicago site in February.

“It took a long time for people to learn just how contaminated things were,” Chizewer told Bloomberg BNA.

Collaborating on Contamination

Chizewer thinks the collaboration between EPA and HUD will be beneficial.

“The East Chicago housing authority was still moving people into this site long after the site was listed as a Superfund site, so it seems to me that there was a breakdown of communication,” she said.

Waikar said low-income communities often face greater risks for contaminant exposure.

“Those cumulative impacts are devastating on health, especially of children,” she told Bloomberg BNA. “I think everyone should be asking questions about the adequacy of their water and demanding more oversight and stronger protection.”

Next Steps

HUD is still determining where it will need to take action, according to an agency representative.

“This is something that is in its infancy,” Woolford said.

The memorandum of understanding the agencies signed in January to promote collaboration on the sites will be effective for at least the next five years.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvia Carignan in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at

For More Information

The EPA-HUD agreement is available at

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