Outcry after report of potential EPA office shuttering

A small fire broke out this afternoon at a house in the 8900 block of Old U.S. 36 in Adams Twp. near Bradford. CAROLINE REINWALD  STAFF

A small fire broke out this afternoon at a house in the 8900 block of Old U.S. 36 in Adams Twp. near Bradford. CAROLINE REINWALD STAFF

To call Wednesday's visit by Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, in East Chicago, Indiana, highly anticipated would be putting it mildly.

While clean-up is ongoing in Zones 2 and 3 of the Superfund - both private residential areas - Kaplan says work remains at an "all-stop" in Zone 1, which comprises the West Calumet Housing Complex.

On Saturday, Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed quoted an unnamed city source saying the Chicago office could be consolidated with an EPA regional office in Kansas.

"The reason I'm here is because it's important that we restore confidence to the people here that we're going to get it right going forward", Pruitt said. Pruitt is the first EPA administrator to visit the site, according to EPA officials.

"I think that if the head of the EPA is traveling anywhere in the region as a matter of courtesy, we've always seen that the administrator would come to the local office and meet with the staff", he said.

Frank Lagunas is an EPA chemist that works out Region 5's Chicago office.

On Wednesday, Pruitt refuted the report during a 45-minute meeting with East Chicago residents, Frank said.

The memo also said the agency plans to continue to maintain a hiring freeze, with "very limited exceptions", even as the government-wide freeze expires.

Residents of the housing complex in IN were joined by environmental activists as they protested nearby before Pruitt arrived. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, and Mayor Anthony Copeland, a Democrat, accompanied Pruitt, who toured the site and heard from residents.

The NAACP released a set of demands on Wednesday that included an expedited groundwater study at the Superfund site and a commitment to obtain community input in the decision-making process.

The Natural Resources Defense Council told CNN that Pruitt has yet to respond to its request for more EPA assistance and oversight in the lead problem in East Chicago's drinking water.

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.

"Some of you may be aware that EPA has discussed new ways to better integrate our efforts with the states, as well as eliminate excess office space, so that we can be more effective and save money", Kaplan said.

Meanwhile, representatives from various community organizations made their way inside Carrie Gosch Elementary School - closed to students last summer amid fears of lead contamination - to take residents' concerns to a delegation of state and federal officials.

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