The injustice of poverty 

Panel to address environmental justice in Indianapolis

click to enlarge Urban Gardens in the Martindale-Brightwood area like this one (Felege Hiywot Center) cold be affected by lead in the soil. - MARK A. LEE
  • Urban Gardens in the Martindale-Brightwood area like this one (Felege Hiywot Center) cold be affected by lead in the soil.
  • Mark A. Lee

Twenty years ago last March, President Clinton signed the Executive Order on Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. The order was in response to private corporations that have historically contributed to and government agencies that had ignored toxic waste and other environmental hazards in disproportionate numbers in low-income neighborhoods and communities with high populations of minorities.

To inform and engage the community on environmental justice concerns in Indianapolis, a group of Indiana University McKinney School of Law students will host a panel discussion on Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Bethel A.M.E., 414 W. Vermont St., Indianapolis.

“Our focus is to introduce the community to what environmental justice is and specifically to highlight three main issues we have identified in Indianapolis,” says one of the organizers, Ravay Smith. “At the meeting we will be introducing a Tumblr page we are creating that will highlight the prevailing environmental issues we have identified: 1) Lead; 2) Combined Sewer Overflows; and 3) Economic Hardships that stem from environmental disparities.”

“I hope people will just get an idea of environmental justice,” adds Smith, “and also how it affects their own community as well as communities nationally and internationally.”

For instance, in Martindale-Brightwood, a predominately African-American community bordered by 30th Street to the north, Sherman Drive to the east, Massachusetts Avenue/21st Street to the south and the Monon Trail to the west, lead was discovered in the soil due to a lead smelter that was once located at 21st and Hillside Avenue.

click to enlarge Boundaries of the Martindale Brightwood neighborhood - MBCDC.ORG
  • Boundaries of the Martindale Brightwood neighborhood

According to the Indiana State Department of Health, lead poisoning “can permanently and irreversibly damage the developing brains and other organs of young children. Serious effects can include lowered intelligence, behavior disorder, and slowed physical development. Once poisoned, a young child’s chances for academic, social and occupational success are significantly diminished.”

“As I’ve advocated across the state,” says Indiana NAACP Climate Justice Chair Denise Abdul-Rahman, “I’ve found that lead is a common thread in African-American communities, that and brownfields, industrial plants, and children living in homes built before 1978 with lead in the paint.”

While lead paint is considered the leading cause of lead poisoning in children, and various programs, such as the Indiana Lead and Healthy Homes Program, are working to combat this, what happens when the lead is in the soil?

According to the Field Sampling Report for the EPA dated April 28, 2014, a lead smelter existed in Martindale-Brightwood for 20 years starting in 1946. Following a fire in 1965, the facility shut down. In 1971, several buildings and lead slag piles were removed from the property, and the area remained vacant until 1985. It is currently the site of Irving Materials, Inc.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Indiana Department of Environmental Management started investigating the site in the mid 1980s, when a site inspection by the EPA discovered lead contamination was present at 3,247 parts per million.

“Between 2005 and 2007, approximately 47,617 tons of non-hazardous lead-contaminated soil were excavated from properties in the vicinity of the Site and disposed of at the Clinton County Landfill,” according to the April 2014 report.

click to enlarge Lead testing in the Martindale-Brightwood area began in the mid 1980s. - CHRIS MCCORMICK/FLICKR
  • Lead testing in the Martindale-Brightwood area began in the mid 1980s.
  • Chris McCormick/Flickr

The EPA reassessed the site in 2009 and a non-profit organization, Improving Kids’ Environment, along with Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis conducted a study in 2011. The EPA tested the soil again in May 2014.

Elizabeth Gore, chair of the Martindale-Brightwood Environmental Justice Coalition, recently learned that while there is still lead in the soil, it is unlikely that lead particulates have been moving through the air, and the lead appears to be contained to the area near the old lead smelting facility.

“There wasn’t lead in every yard, it wasn’t in every sample, so I feel very good about that,” says Gore. “They are going to come back and do another assessment in early spring 2015. At that time, they’re going to try to assess whether or not they’ll do a remediation of the properties, or just removal of soil at contaminated properties.”

Events like the one on Thursday night are important, says Abdul-Rahman of the Indiana NAACP, because those who are directly affected can learn more and those who aren’t directly affected can still make a difference.

“They can use their voices, social media, organize, create resolutions, get signatures, and work with the City-County Council [and other government leaders] to accelerate change,” says Abdul-Rahman.

While all are welcome, Smith encourages other students to attend. “I think engaging the youth is important,” she says. “We’re the next generation and if we know what and who we’re up against, we’ll better prepare ourselves to fight environmental justice issues.”

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