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HUD, EPA Agree to Better Address Lead Contamination

A new joint agreement between federal agencies is aimed at dealing with lead contamination of subsidized housing in the wake of the East Chicago, Ind., crisis that's led to the relocation of more than 1,000 people and remediation across the Calumet neighborhood.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency signed a new agreement Wednesday that gives the agencies more proactive means to test and clean up lead and other contamination at public housing complexes and subsidized multifamily housing on or near Superfund sites.

Jennifer Fiore, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, said the idea of the agreement is for government agencies to be more proactive and collaborative when faced with situations like the one in East Chicago.

EPA officials referred requests for comment to HUD, as it was the lead agency in developing the policy.

Under the terms of the agreement, HUD and EPA will begin identifying HUD-assisted and public housing units near Superfund sites and prioritizing those that need immediate action.

From there, HUD will test the soil at the sites to identify any contamination issues.

The results from the soil tests should be available in 120 days, according to Fiore, and while that work is underway, HUD will be clear with residents what work is being done and what information is found through the testing.

If that testing turns up any contamination issues, HUD will coordinate with the EPA to start remediation work, Fiore said.

If the EPA is considering elevating a site to the National Priorities List, Fiore said, HUD would be notified.

"There's going to be a lot of data sharing and communication," Fiore said.

At the same time HUD and the EPA announce its new cooperation, the federal housing agency said it will lower its threshold of detected blood lead levels for children living in public or subsidized housing.

Fiore said the new rule will lower the actionable level from 20 micrograms per deciliter to 5 micrograms per deciliter, the same level considered actionable by the Center for Disease Control.

If an elevated blood lead level is found in a child who lives in HUD-assisted housing, the housing provider must look into the source of any lead or chemical exposure within 15 days, according to Fiore, and get any issues discovered under control within 30 days.

The housing provider must report back to HUD during that work, Fiore said.

Fiore said the new rule is another component of HUD's efforts to address lead issues that endanger residents in public or subsidized housing.

Lead poisoning is completely preventable, Fiore said, and studies show the physical and intellectual damage exposure can have on young children.

HUD is committed to providing safe and healthy housing for people, Fiore said, and the agency takes that commitment seriously.

"We can't afford that in our nation," Fiore said. "It's not acceptable."

While making strides to prevent lead exposure to people living in public housing or HUD-assisted housing has been a priority under HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Fiore said the agency will continue on that path moving forward.

"This will carry over into the next administration," Fiore said.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., asked Dr. Ben Carson, who is President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to lead HUD, if the federal housing agency will remain committed to addressing the lead contamination and relocation efforts underway in East Chicago.

"Absolutely," Carson said, Thursday during a Senate Banking hearing. "Whenever we're in a Superfund situation and lives are in danger and children are in danger of being poisoned, I believe that becomes an emergency, and we will push very hard to complete that project."

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