EAST CHICAGO, Ind. — The head of the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday would not address rumors about whether Chicago’s regional office would be closed — even as the head of that office issued a memo calling the reports “pure speculation.”
Scott Pruitt walked out of a news conference without taking questions after he and other elected officials discussed their visit to a Superfund cleanup site at a lead-contaminated public-housing complex.
The visit comes amid reports that two regional offices, including the Region 5 office in Chicago, would be axed by President Donald Trump’s administration — and office employees held a news conference to say they’ve already been cut to the bone.
Bob Kaplan, the acting director of the Region 5 office, sent a memo to employees criticizing stories about the office closing as “pure speculation,” according to a memo given to the Chicago Sun-Times and other media outlets.
“These stories are not true, are pure speculation, and undermine our ability to communicate with the public the real information we have,” Kaplan wrote in a memo sent to staff on Monday. “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. At this time, our discussions have not veered into the subject of an office closure. Anyone stating anything to the contrary is spreading false information.”
Pruitt toured the complex with Indiana officials, including Gov. Eric Holcomb and Sen. Todd Young, both Republicans, as well as the local U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky and U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, both Democrats.
Donnelly said continued funding for the cleanup and soil-testing efforts was assured by Pruitt.
“In terms of resources, administrator Pruitt made commitments, and made commitments that we would have it right,” Donnelly said. “I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but he said, ‘Look, this is a multistep process that will be made right and there’s a reason that I’m here first in the entire country.’ And so we take him at his word.”
“The real budget will provide the funds necessary to make sure East Chicago is right,” Donnelly added.
Visclosky emphasized that no budget has been finalized and the EPA’s fate has not yet been sealed.
“It is up to Congress and the appropriations committee to make sure that wise judgments are made to ensure that agencies such as EPA have the appropriate funds to meet their needs,” Visclosky said. “That is a process underway, so I would not jump to conclusions that there will not be adequate resources.”
Meanwhile, in Chicago, officials with the American Federation of Government Employees, along with U.S. Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi and Jan Schakowsky, held a news conference to demand that Pruitt meet with office employees.
“We have a crisis — we have an agency that’s already been cut to the bare bone,” said John J. O’Grady, president of AFGE Council 238, the union that oversees all EPA unions nationwide.
O’Grady, talking to reporters at EPA’s Region 5 office downtown, said EPA had about 18,000 employees nationwide in 1999 and now has about 15,000. That’s before a proposed 31 percent budget cut, he said.
O’Grady, standing with Schakowsky and Krishnamoorthi, said such huge cuts would mean fewer EPA employees in the field to test water, air and soil — meaning less data and less ability to enforce existing laws.
“That means it’s open season for any company or corporation wanting to dump,” O’Grady said. “We’ve been there. That’s why we have an EPA.”
Residents of the housing complex in Indiana were joined by environmental activists as they protested nearby before Pruitt arrived.
Chanting crowds weaved through streets of East Chicago. Some held signs that read “East Chicago Demands Clean Water.”
Roughly 1,000 people were ordered evacuated from the housing complex because of lead contamination. Evacuations began last summer. Officials say two dozen families remain at the 45-year-old complex, built on a site once occupied by a lead-products factory.
Eleven of the remaining families have found new homes and are in the process of moving, according to HUD. Thirteen other families are appealing their relocation offers from the city housing authority or have been given notice to move. Housing officials said their goal is to move out all families by May.
Resident Demetra Turner, 44, who left Chicago a decade ago for public housing in Indiana, said she was trying to find safe housing for the two children who live with her.
“We are truly in the fight of our lives,” she said.
Residents and the Natural Resources Defense Council are calling for more support and testing. The EPA workers union wants a separate meeting with Pruitt.
“We can’t drink the waters. The land we walk upon is contaminated. And we air we breathe is contaminated,” said Thomas Frank, a resident of the community of roughly 30,000 who lives near the Superfund site.
Pruitt has criticized the EPA for overreach, and Trump’s administration has taken steps to roll back environmental regulations. Also, Trump has proposed eliminating EPA’s budget by nearly one-third.
Contributing: Associated Press