It is raining in East Chicago

I was introduced to the legacy of the late Warren Bennis this week. The innovative scholar on leadership has written that leaders are people who do the right thing, and managers are people who do things right. Mayors, governors and presidents need to be good at both. And one problem with political campaigns is that voters often don’t get to see how candidates will handle their shot at either.

Or do they?

Politicians get an opportunity to show voters what they are made of more often than some might think. The ground contamination of lead and arsenic in East Chicago is a classic example of an issue that appears to be separating candidates. State government’s passive response to it baffles me. I write about politics and government more than most, so being baffled is not uncommon for me these days.

Here is a very quick summary of the crisis regarding a 400 acre area in the West Calumet part of East Chicago.

In 1906, the Delamar Copper Refinery Co. began construction of what became USS Lead in East Chicago. Between 1906 and 1985, the facilities there manufactured a variety of lead based products beginning with lead arsenate insecticide and ending with the recovery of lead from scrap metal and automotive batteries.

Beginning in 1959, other land uses emerged in the area beginning with the dedication of the original Carrie Gosch School. A new school building with the same name was completed adjacent to the original site in 1999. That elementary school will be closed this school year.

Between 1970 and 1973, the West Calumet Housing Complex was constructed. Currently the complex features 346 units, providing housing for as many as 1200 residents. Two thirds of the residents are children. In July of this year, the East Chicago Housing Authority advised the residents of their need to relocate due to the lead contamination in the ground in and around it.

The first signs of lead and arsenic contamination became public in 1985. There have been bankruptcies. There have been lawsuits over the liability for the cleanup. The area was added to the EPA’s Superfund National Priorities List in 2009. The depth and scope of the contamination is overwhelming.

It appears that the ground throughout the area, two feet deep, needs to be removed and replaced. As if that wouldn’t be a challenge in the middle of open rural space, it is complicated by the fact that this is now an urban area where families live and children go to school.

So why is this suddenly a crisis? Because people are sick. Because we now know that the contamination is the reason they are sick. Because modern science shows us that the land is not suitable for housing or schools until it is cleaned up. And because it can only be cleaned up by people who care about it. And when I say “people,” I mean government people.

This is what we have known since July. The facts are not being debated.

The people of the city have been pleading for assistance for the last two months and it appears the federal government, through the EPA and HUD, have been slowly and methodically tending to their duty. There is no sense of urgency in their actions however, at least based on what I have read.

But where is the State of Indiana? Our state government has taken a pass on engaging in the most dense and most identifiable health and environmental crisis that has occurred here in modern time. Not only have neither Gov. Mike Pence nor Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb visited the area, but they have committed almost nothing in state resources to the crisis for assistance.  How is that even possible?

Politicians are touting a “rainy day fund” of more than $2 billion dollars as an example of fiscal discipline while out on the campaign trail this year. I have a newsflash for Gov. Pence and Lt. Gov. Holcomb:

It is raining in East Chicago.

This is a time for leaders and managers of which Professor Bennis spoke. A true leader would simply decide that committing our resources to this crisis will be done, and it will be done right now. A true manager would receive that order, and not rest until until the people of West Calumet, otherwise known as constituents, knew that what could be done was being done.

John Gregg visited the area last week and looked the people he wants to serve as their next governor in the eye. The people there likely have more faith in outcomes in January if he is elected.

Pence and Holcomb should have never let him steal this opportunity from them. But because they did, and because they also appear to be sticking to a shamefully apathetic approach to the matter, voters should respond accordingly.

On this golden opportunity to step up, neither of them have shown they can lead or manage. Or simply open an umbrella in the middle of a downpour.