EPA chief visits Indiana waste site amid proposed budget cuts

EAST CHICAGO, Ind. (Reuters) - The head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toured his first hazardous waste site on Tuesday amid proposed budget cuts that could devastate efforts to clean up contaminated land and water around the country.

FILE PHOTO: Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), speaks to employees of the agency in Washington, U.S., February 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

Scott Pruitt’s visit to East Chicago, Indiana, came a day after the agency denied a report that it was considering closing its Chicago office, which oversees regional environmental protection efforts, including the Flint, Michigan drinking water clean-up and Great Lakes restoration.

“The reason I’m here is because it is important that we restore confidence to the people here in this community that we are going to get it right going forward,” Pruitt told the media after meeting with residents and lawmakers.

Pruitt did not address the report of the possible office closure or how drastic budget cuts would impact the EPA’s operations.

He toured a housing complex built on the Superfund site where around 1,000 residents had to leave their homes earlier this year due to lead contamination. Dozens of people held signs on Wednesday urging the EPA to continue clean-up efforts.

The Superfund program was started in 1980 to clean up hazardous waste sites, which now number just over 1,300 around the country.

The White House budget proposal submitted to Congress last month includes a 31 percent cut in spending for the EPA, including a similar reduction of the agency’s Hazardous Substance Superfund Account by $330 million to $762 million.

Clean-up would continue in East Chicago, lawmakers said.

Pruitt, “made commitments that we would have it right,” Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly said.” There is a budget that is sent over and then there is a real budget that is put together. And the real budget will provide the funds necessary to make sure East Chicago is right.”

East Chicago, around 25 miles (40 km) outside of Chicago, was home to the now defunct U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery Inc which contaminated the facility and surrounding areas with lead and arsenic.

Demetra Turner, 44, a resident of the West Calumet Housing Complex who has yet to leave, urged others to keep pressure on the EPA.

“Keep fighting people, keep fighting, because that is what it takes,” she said.

Reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin; Editing by Lisa Shumaker