It’s Sunday morning, so I’m watching George Stephanopolous. He’s sitting with Newt Gingrich. Newt may be right – when it comes to Trump, all that matters is if he can get the economy roaring or not. The rest is just blarney.
I used the word “blarney” a couple of times this week on the radio. It was in reference to EPA head Scott Pruitt coming to the Region to address the lead and arsenic crisis in the West Calumet neighborhood. There used to be a couple of lead smelters there. And then we built a housing project on the site. It’s a mess. People may have died from this.
And one of these is my mom. She died at 47 from a cancer that a University of Chicago doctor told me was caused by “something in the environment.” My mom lived for a time as a kid in the Calumet neighborhood and went to gradeschool near there. So it goes.
It goes that I keep telling people on the radio that I am not the person to cover the West Calumet lead and arsenic story. The more I learn about the situation, the more I wonder if this caused my mom’s cancer. I don’t know what the probability of that being true is… but the probability that I will ever really know is very low.
And I’m not sure I want to know. Talk about dark times for a family. My mom fought cancer for many years. My sisters were young. They went to high school and came home from classes to a mom in pain, sucking on oxygen. My brothers and I came home to the same. My mom died a slow and painful death and it hurts to even think that it may have had to do with her living near the lead smelting plant that’s now in the national news.
My mom also lived in the Frogsville section of Hammond, across the street from East Chicago. Look out the front door of the tiny house where she grew up and your view is dominated by the smokestacks of what used to be called Stauffer Chemical. There’s a maze of pipes and smokestacks that reach into the sky and you can look right into the plant as you come down the nine-span bridge. Who knows what was in that stuff back in the middle of the last century?
And what about the railyard on the north side of my mom’s house? As a kid, I played baseball with my many cousins in a lot that bordered that railyard. Tankers parked there overnight and sometimes for weeks. Almost all of them were marked “Dangerous.”
When Ricky or Michael or Eddie or Donald or Duane or any of my other cousins hit a home run, we’d run around the little fence and pick up the ball from underneath the trains. It was almost always tankers or coal cars. And they leaked. I don’t know how many times I’d crawl under a tanker to pick up the ball and it would be in a puddle of some mysterious liquid. My mom grew up near that liquid. Could have been that.
I know that it’s my job to go find out what’s happening in news stories around here, especially when the general public isn’t invited to attend a news conference such as the one that Scott Pruitt did on Wednesday in East Chicago.
10am – Again, they’re calling to see if I’m coming to the news conference of Scott Pruitt.
“Is he gonna answer questions?” I ask Debbie, who’s holding the phone, waiting for an answer from me.
Debbie doesn’t have a definitive answer. I know that it’s my duty to get specifics about what the EPA is gonna do in terms of cleanup, how much money they’re willing to provide, how long the EPA team is gonna be in East Chicago, how deep they’re gonna go with the soil. These are things that local people should know.
For some reason, I’m led to believe that Scott Pruitt is gonna answer these questions, so out of duty I hang around the studio waiting to drive the couple miles to the West Calumet neighborhood.
12:15 – I leave the WJOB studios on the campus of the Purdue Northwest Commercialization Center and head north on Indianapolis Boulevard. Immediately, I sense that something is wrong. There’s trucks backed up for a mile. I know what that means – there’s a train blocking the tracks on Indianapolis Boulevard. These are the tracks that go right behind the WJOB 400-foot tower. For decades, railroads have stopped their trains there.
This action cuts off Hammond from East Chicage. Trucks idle for hours on Indianapolis Blvd., 169th Street, Kennedy Avenue, Michigan Avenue, Columbia Avenue. It’s a chocolate mess. I snake my way over to Columbia, but an 18-wheeler has caught itself on some wires trying to turn onto Summer Street. Columbia’s no better than Indianapolis Blvd.
12:55pm – I make it to the Carrie Gosch school, which is closed because of the lead and arsenic crisis. There’s dozens of news vans and reporters in suits walking around and a ton of camera and support personnel walking around in pony tails and old tennis shoes.
There’s two types of people you see at a news event. The talent, which is impeccably dressed in suits for the men and dresses and high heels for the women. And the support people – the cameramen, the sound guys, the photographers. These people look like they’re going to a rock concert.
There is a middle ground – the newswriters. But for broadcast news teams, the writers don’t come to anything but the biggest news events. If it’s a fair to middlin news event, then the talent has to write his or her own stuff. It’s with the writers (and newspaper reporters) that it’s hard to tell which group they belong to. Sometimes a writer who one day wants to be a talent will show up dressed to the nines. But if it’s a writer who accepts being a writer, then he or she may dress in jeans and little makeup (woman) or one of those puffy vests with a mustard stain on it (men).
Anyways, it’s raining out and I’m standing outside a fence with dozens of reporter people looking at Carrie Gosch school.
“What the f---?” I ask a local reporter I know.
“They’re behind schedule, at least an hour.”
“How come we can’t go in?”
“Beats the hell out of me.”
So I stand in the rain outside Carrie Gosch school for a while… thinking about the nap I usually take at precisely 2pm in the afternoon. That’s what you do as a morning radio host. You wake at 4am and take a nap at 2pm. If you do that, you can last. If you don’t, you won’t last.
As a morning radio host, you become a baby once again. Someone (yourself) has to put you down for a nap every afternoon or you become cranky and get diarrhea.
There is one slightly comical element to this. One of our WJOB producers is set to meet me at this press conference. My phone rings.
“Hey, I’m sitting out here in front of the new Carrie Gosch. Where is everybody?”
Now I know what you’re thinking – “the new Carrie Gosch?” Yes. It’s actually West Side Middle School. That’s where they had to move all the kids when it finally came out that the kids were walking across a Superfund site to get to school everyday. Oh, and also living on a Superfund site. So they moved the school to a vacant middle school. That’s where my producer was.
“It’s the old Carrie Gosch,” I tell him.
“I don’t know where that is,” my producer says.
There is some irony here. My producer lives and grew up in East Chicago. So there’s hundreds of people at the site, and the only person who gets lost on the way to Carrie Gosch is the guy from East Chicago. It parallels the irony that there's hundreds of reporters covering the lead and arsenic fiasco at West Calumet, and the only person really shirking his duty is the local radio guy right down the street.
There’s more to this story. But I didn’t see any of it. I’m standing there and I overhear this rather smug looking newspaper reporter say – “Yeah, we were in one house and the woman offered us coffee. We told her, 'no thanks.’”
The reporter laughs. “You can’t boil the lead out, you know.”
After that, I got in my car and drove home and took a nap. Right on time. My head hit the pillow at 2pm
From what I read in the paper, eventually reporters were allowed inside the gate of Carrie Gosch, but no general public. Pruitt read a 90-second statement and left. No questions. I talked about it on the air the next morning (this is where I used the term “blarney”). And I got into a big argument with a guy named Bob, who chastised me for not staying to hear what Pruitt had to say.
Bob had a point – I shirked my duty. I’m the local radio guy and I should have been there to see Scott Pruitt read his statement for 90 seconds.
I am not the person to cover the West Calumet story. When the newspaper reporter joked that you can't boil lead out, I felt like punching him in the face. When Bob took me to task on the air, I erupted, yelling nonsensical responses. Sorry to the three or four of you for going way past a thousand words. But as you can tell, I lose my bearings when I talk about arsenic, my mom, kids playing in lead, officials who won’t give us answers. I’m not the one to cover the West Calumet story.