After Parkland shooting, U.S. states shift education funds to school safety despite critics

Adin Chistian (16), student of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, embraces his mother Denyse, next to the crosses and Stars of David placed in front of the fence of the school to commemorate the victims of a shooting, in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Hilary Russ and Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Before the ink could dry on Florida Governor Rick Scott’s signature last month, critics cried foul over the bill he signed into law to spend $400 million boosting security at schools across the state following February’s Parkland mass shooting.

School officials, local sheriffs and Democrats opposed different provisions, including one to provide $67 million to arm teachers. Educators, in particular, voiced concerns that the state will strip money from core education funding to pay for the new school resource officers and beefed up buildings.

“We are a very lean state,” said Florida state Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat who voted against the bill. “If we’re spending money somewhere, we’re taking it from somewhere else.”

In the wake of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people, at least 10 U.S. states have introduced measures to increase funding for hardening of school buildings and campuses, add resource officers and increase mental health services, according to Reuters’ tally.

Many of the proposals outlined the need for bulletproof windows, panic buttons and armored shelters to be installed in classrooms. Some legislation called for state police or sheriff’s departments to provide officers to patrol public schools.

Altogether, more than 100 legislative bills to address school safety, not all of which have funding components, have been introduced in 27 states since the Feb. 14 shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, according to data provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But states do not usually have extra money on hand or room to raise taxes. So to pay for the measures, states are mostly shifting money away from other projects, dipping into reserves or contemplating borrowing.

“I would characterize these proposals and the bills that were passed, for example Florida and Wisconsin, as primarily shifting funding from other priorities,” said Kathryn White, senior policy analyst at the National Association of State Budget Officers.

Calls for more gun control and more safety measures have come during peak budget season for nearly all states, whose legislatures spend the spring in debates that shape the coming year’s budget starting July 1.

STATE BY STATE

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker called a special legislative session last month, when lawmakers agreed to create a $100 million school safety grant program.

The money will come out of the state’s general fund. But the spending, coupled with tax cuts and other pending legislation, will leave that fund with reserves of roughly $185 million – enough to run state government for less than four days in the event of a fiscal emergency, according to Jon Peacock, director of the think tank Wisconsin Budget Project.

“That is far less of a cushion than a fiscally responsible state should set aside,” Peacock said.

Funding the safety measures also means that some economic development programs for rural counties did not get funded and a one-time sales tax holiday was scaled back, he said.

In Maine, lawmakers are considering borrowing $20 million by issuing 10-year general obligation bonds to fund loans to school districts for security enhancements.

New Jersey lawmakers are also looking to borrow. On March 26, state senators tacked an extra $250 million for school security onto an existing bill for $500 million of bonds to expand county vocational colleges. The legislature has not yet voted on the measure.

Maryland, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Indiana are also increasing – or trying to increase – funding for school security measures since Parkland.

In Florida, the legislature passed safety spending while approving an increase of only $0.47 per pupil in funding used to cover teacher pay raises, school bus fuel and other operational expenses for education.

“We see $400-plus million in school safety, which we absolutely applaud, but you can’t do that at the expense of your core education program,” Broward County schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said shortly before Scott signed the budget.

Stoneman Douglas is among the schools Runcie, who also heads the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, oversees.

To be sure, some state and local governments have been adding money for school safety measures for years, particularly after 20 children and six adults were killed in a shooting in Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Some critics, particularly Democrats, say measures that only beef up infrastructure or do not create recurring funds fall short of the mark.

Dan Rossmiller, government relations director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said in a memo to lawmakers in March that individual districts also need money for prevention and intervention, including education services for expelled students and anti-bullying programs, and other purposes.

“Funding for only ‘hardening’ school facilities, while welcome, is likely not going to be sufficient to address the full range of locally identified needs,” he said.

(Reporting by Hilary Russ and Laila Kearney; Editing by Daniel Bases and Chizu Nomiyama)

Deadly winter storm delays travel in U.S. Midwest, Northeast

Weather conditions for winter storm 2-6-18 National Weather Service

(Reuters) – A winter storm will dump snow and freezing rain on the U.S. Midwest and the Northeast beginning on Tuesday after it caused several deaths as it snarled highways and spurred the cancellation of hundreds of flights at Chicago’s main airport.

The National Weather Service warned commuters in northern Texas, east through southern Illinois and Indiana, and New York and Massachusetts, to watch for icy road conditions, wind gusts and reduced visibility throughout the day and into Wednesday.

“The ice and snow will result in difficult travel conditions,” the NWS said in an advisory. “Motorists are strongly urged to slow down and allow plenty of time to reach their destinations.”

Winds of 40-miles an hour(65 kph) and as much as 4 inches (10 cm) of snow are expected across the affected regions, with parts of New York and Vermont getting as much as a foot of snow, the NWS said.

The storm was responsible for the death of six people on Monday in crashes throughout Iowa, the Des Moines Register reported.

Two people also died in southwest Missouri and more than 70 others were injured after icy roads caused a high number of crashes, the Springfield News-Leader reported.

At Chicago’s busy O’Hare International Airport, the storm caused the cancellation of more than 460 flights, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Trump administration will allow states to test Medicaid work requirements

U.S. President Donald Trump attends the Women in Healthcare panel hosted by Seema Verma (R), Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 22, 2017.

By Yasmeen Abutaleb

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Thursday it would allow states to test requiring some Medicaid recipients to work or participate in community activities such as volunteering or jobs training as a condition of eligibility for the government health insurance program for the poor.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued guidance making it easier for states to design and propose test programs that implement such requirements. States must propose such changes through waivers and receive federal approval.

Seema Verma, the agency’s administrator, said the policy guidance came in response to requests from at least 10 states that have proposed requiring some Medicaid recipients to work or participate in activities that may include skills training, education, job search, volunteering or caregiving. Those states include Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, Arizona, Indiana and Utah.

Certain Medicaid populations would be exempt from the rules, including those with disabilities, the elderly, children and pregnant women. Verma also said states would have to make “reasonable modifications” for those battling opioid addiction and other substance use disorders.

“This gives us a pathway to start approving waivers,” Verma said on a call with reporters on Wednesday. “This is about helping those individuals rise out of poverty.”

Under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, former Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement commonly known as Obamacare, 31 states expanded Medicaid to those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, adding millions of people to the rolls.

Republicans have repeatedly failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, a top campaign promise of President Donald Trump. Instead, the Trump administration has sought to weaken the program through executive orders and administrative rules.

The Obama administration opposed state efforts to implement work requirements in Medicaid because it could result in fewer people having access to health insurance.

For instance, Kentucky last year proposed work requirements for able-bodied adults to get insurance and establishing new fees for all members based on income. A study found the proposal would reduce the number of residents on Medicaid by nearly 86,000 within five years, saving more than $330 million.

Republicans argue that Medicaid was created to serve the most vulnerable and has become bloated under Obamacare. Verma and other Republicans said implementing work and community engagement requirements could help improve health outcomes by connecting people with jobs and training.

(Reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Deep freeze keeps grip on eastern United States; four die

Elena Barduniotis from Colorado waits in Times Square ahead of New Year's celebrations in Manhattan.

By Brendan O’Brien

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) – A record-shattering Arctic freeze kept its grip on much of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains on Tuesday but temperatures everywhere except the Northeast were expected to warm within 24 hours.

Many school districts shut their classrooms due to the cold snap, which claimed four lives over the long New Year’s weekend.

The National Weather Service issued wind chill warnings for Tuesday as dangerously low temperatures were due from eastern Montana across the Midwest into the Atlantic coast and the Northeast and down through the deep South.

School districts in Iowa, Massachusetts, Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina canceled or delayed the start of classes as bitterly cold temperatures, 20 degrees to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (11 to 17 degrees Celsius) below normal, were expected across the eastern half of the United States.

“Just the bitter cold which is just too dangerous to put kids out on the street waiting for a bus that may not come,” Herb Levine, superintendent of the Peabody Public Schools, north of Boston, told a local CBS affiliate television station.

The cold was blamed for the deaths of two men in separate incidents in Milwaukee, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A homeless man was found dead on a porch in Charleston, West Virginia, while another man was found dead outside a church in Detroit and police said he may have froze to death, local news outlets reported.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser urged residents to call the city if they saw people outside.

“We want every resident to have shelter and warmth,” she said in a tweet.

Many places across the United States experienced record low temperatures over the last few days. Omaha, Nebraska, posted a low of minus 20F (minus 29C), breaking a 130-year-old record, and Aberdeen, South Dakota, shattered a record set in 1919 with a temperature of minus 32F (minus 36C).

The cold should ease across most of the country after Tuesday, but the northeastern section of the country will see a repeat of the frigid weather on Thursday or Friday as another arctic blast hits the area.

Private AccuWeather forecaster said the cold snap could combine with a storm brewing off the Bahamas to bring snow and high winds to much of the Eastern Seaboard as it heads north on Wednesday and Thursday.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Listeria risk prompts Meijer to recall produce in six U.S. states

Listeria risk prompts Meijer to recall produce in six U.S. states

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Retailer Meijer Inc said it was recalling packaged vegetables in six U.S. states because of possible contamination from Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, which can cause fatal food poisoning in young children, pregnant women and elderly or frail people.

Meijer, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, said there were no illnesses reported as of Sunday.

The recall affects 35 products and includes vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus as well as party trays sold in Meijer-branded plastic or foam packaging in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin between Sept. 27 and Oct. 20, the company said on Saturday.

In February, Meijer recalled its Meijer-branded Colby and Colby Jack cheese sold through its deli counters because of potential contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1,600 people develop a serious form of infection known as listeriosis each year, and 260 die from the disease, making it the third most deadly form of food poisoning in the United States.

“The infection is most likely to sicken pregnant women and their newborns, adults aged 65 or older and people with weakened immune systems,” the CDC said on its website. Symptoms include fever and diarrhea and can start the same day of exposure or as much as 70 days later.

(Reporting by Alwyn Scott; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Peter Cooney)

Judge halts Indiana abortion law targeting minors

FILE PHOTO: Healthcare activists with Planned Parenthood and the Center for American Progress pass by the Supreme Court as they protest in opposition to the Senate Republican healthcare bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Chris Kenning

(Reuters) – Indiana may appeal a U.S. court ruling that blocked parts of the state’s latest abortion law that critics said would deter girls under 18 from getting an abortion without parental approval, the state attorney general’s office said on Thursday.

U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker issued a preliminary injunction late on Wednesday against portions of measure signed in April by Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb.

Indiana law already required parental consent for minors unless a judge provided a waiver known as a “judicial bypass.” The new law allowed the judge to notify parents if the waiver is granted, and was scheduled to take effect July 1.

Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky and the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana sued to stop the law in May, arguing it created an unconstitutional burden on minors and would create a chilling effect.

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill is reviewing the ruling to determine whether to appeal, spokesman Corey Elliot said in an interview.

“Wednesday’s injunction essentially encourages a minor to go it alone through the emotionally and physically overwhelming procedure of aborting a human being,” Hill said in a statement.

“We will always support the authority of parents to know what is going on with their children.”

The judge also blocked provisions that barred abortion clinics from talking with teens about options in other states, and more stringent identification requirements for parents before their child gets an abortion.

“This decision affirms that the state must continue to provide a safe alternative for young women who – whatever their circumstances – are unable to talk to their parents about this difficult and personal decision,” ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk said in a statement.

The Indiana State Department of Health recorded 244 abortions in 2015 of girls aged 10 to 17, roughly 3 percent of the state total.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a minor who is unable or unwilling to obtain parental consent for an abortion must be allowed to proceed if a judge determines that she is sufficiently mature to make the decision herself or that an abortion is in her best interest, the ACLU said.

(Reporting by Chris Kenning; Editing by Richard Chang)

Bird flu found in Tennessee chicken flock on Tyson-contracted farm

The Avian influenza virus is harvested from a chicken egg as part of a diagnostic process in this undated U.S. Department of Agriculture

By Jo Winterbottom

(Reuters) – A strain of bird flu has been detected in a chicken breeder flock on a Tennessee farm contracted to U.S. food giant Tyson Foods Inc, and the 73,500 birds will be culled to stop the virus from entering the food system, government and company officials said on Sunday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said this represented the first confirmed case of highly pathogenic H7 avian influenza (HPAI) in commercial poultry in the United States this year. It is the first time HPAI has been found in Tennessee, the state government said.

Tyson, the biggest chicken meat producer in the United States, said in a statement it was working with Tennessee and federal officials to contain the virus by euthanizing the birds on the contract farm.

In 2014 and 2015, during a widespread outbreak of HPAI, the United States killed nearly 50 million birds, mostly egg-laying hens. The losses pushed U.S. egg prices to record highs and prompted trading partners to ban imports of American poultry, even though there was little infection then in the broiler industry.

No people were affected in that outbreak, which was primarily of the H5N2 strain. The risk of human infection in poultry outbreaks is low, although in China people have died this winter amid an outbreak of the H7N9 virus in birds.

The facility in Tennessee’s Lincoln County has been placed under quarantine, along with approximately 30 other poultry farms within a 6.2-mile (10 km) radius of the site, the state said. Other flocks in the quarantined area are being tested, it added.

Tyson, the USDA and the state did not name the facility involved. Tyson said that it did not expect disruptions to its chicken business.

The USDA should have more information by Monday evening about the particular strain of the virus involved, spokeswoman Donna Karlsons said by email.

HPAI bird flu was last found in a commercial turkey flock in Indiana in January 2016.

The USDA said it would inform the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and international trading partners of the outbreak.

The biggest traditional markets for U.S. chicken meat are Mexico and Canada, which introduced state or regional bans on U.S. broiler exports after the outbreak two years ago, and China, which imposed a national ban.

Tennessee’s broiler production is too small to rank it in the top five U.S. producing states but it is the third-largest generator of cash receipts in agriculture for the state.

In January, the USDA detected bird flu in a wild duck in Montana that appeared to match one of the strains found during the 2014 and 2015 outbreak.

The United States stepped up biosecurity measures aimed at preventing the spread of bird flu after the outbreak two years ago.

Tyson said precautions being taken include disinfecting all vehicles entering farms and banning all nonessential visitor access to contract farms.

In recent months, different strains of bird flu have been confirmed across Asia and in Europe. Authorities have culled millions of birds in affected areas to control the outbreaks.

France, which has the largest poultry flock in the European Union, has reported outbreaks of the highly contagious H5N8 bird flu virus. In South Korea, the rapid spread of the H5N6 strain of the virus has led to the country’s worst-ever outbreak of bird flu.

(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf in New York and Jo Winterbottom in Chicago; Editing by Will Dunham)

Two Indianapolis shootings targeting law enforcement possibly linked

By Timothy Mclaughlin

(Reuters) – Two shootings this month targeting police in Indianapolis may be related, police said on Friday, a day after shots again struck law enforcement offices in the Indiana capital.

In both Thursday’s shooting and a similar incident on Oct. 4, officers were in the buildings that were hit but none were injured, police said.

According to a police statement, “initial investigative information points to the same suspect (or suspects)” involved in the earlier shooting, which targeted the department’s Northwest District Police Headquarters.

The shootings come at a time of intense debate over policing in the United States and use of excessive force against minorities, with numerous cities grappling with how to improve strained relations between law enforcement and citizens.

On Thursday around 11 p.m. local time, officers inside the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s North District Headquarters heard shots and took cover, the statement said.

They did not find a suspect but witnesses heard a vehicle speeding away. Walls and windows sustained damage and a vehicle in the parking lot was also hit, it said.

Sergeant Kendale Adams, spokesman for the department, said on Friday police did not know how many shots were fired or how many hit the building. Adams said police do not have a motive for believe the shooting is linked to the earlier incident.

Police Chief Troy Riggs said multiple rounds hit the building in the first incident and asked the public for help in identifying the shooter.

“An armed attack on police headquarter is an attack on our community. Make no mistake, it is an attack on Indianapolis itself,” Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said at a news conference after the first incident.

(Reporting by Timothy McLaughlin in Chicago; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Flawed CDC Report left Indiana children vulnerable to lead poisoning

Yasir, 5, waits for his bus with his father Yarnell R. Arrington Sr. in the West Calumet Complex where he resides in East Chicago, Indiana, U.S.

By Joshua Schneyer and M.B. Pell

EAST CHICAGO, Indiana (Reuters) – In this industrial northwest Indiana city, hundreds of families who live in a gated public housing community with prim lawns and a new elementary school next door are searching for new homes. Their own places have been marked for demolition.

The school, temporarily closed, has been taken over by the Environmental Protection Agency and health officials who offer free blood tests to check residents for lead poisoning. Long after the U.S. lead industry left East Chicago, a toxic legacy remains. Smokestacks at one smelter next door, shuttered 31 years ago, for decades polluted these grounds.

Emissions from the now-defunct U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery Inc, or USS Lead, left a potent hazard in the soil. By early this year, the EPA detected concentrations of the heavy metal so high in some yards that they could pose a serious health risk to families at the West Calumet Housing Complex. Children are told not to play outdoors.

At the 44-year-old housing complex, all 1,100 residents are being forced to move out. Many are outraged about why the dangerous soils weren’t identified and removed earlier.

One reason: Five years ago, a unit of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a 19-page report that all but ruled out the possibility of children here getting lead poisoning. (http://bit.ly/2dAYVOt)

That CDC branch – the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, – conducts public health assessments to examine potential contamination risks and point the way to next steps to be taken by EPA and others.

In its January 2011 report, ATSDR said it reached “4 important conclusions.” Among them: “Breathing the air, drinking tap water or playing in soil in neighborhoods near the USS Lead Site is not expected to harm people’s health.”

ATSDR’s report was built on flawed or incomplete data, a Reuters examination found: The assumption that residents weren’t at risk was wrong, and many of the report’s key findings were unfounded or misleading.

The report said “nearly 100 percent” of children were being tested for blood lead levels in the impacted area. State data reviewed by Reuters show the annual rate of blood lead testing among children in East Chicago ranged from 5 percent to 20 percent over the last 11 years.

 

In the area, well known for its history of lead contamination, ATSDR reported that “declining blood lead levels in small children appear to confirm that they are no longer exposed to lead from any source.”

Yet from 2005 to 2015, nearly 22 percent of children tested in the Indiana census tract that contains the West Calumet houses showed an elevated blood lead level – 160 such results in all. Children tested in this tract were more than twice as likely to have an elevated reading than in other areas of East Chicago, state data reviewed by Reuters shows.

The CDC’s conclusions help explain why many West Calumet residents didn’t learn until recently that their yards were toxic, according to health experts, city administrators and data compiled by Reuters.

GRAPHIC – A Neighborhood and Lead: http://tmsnrt.rs/2d0QCcM

Carla Morgan, East Chicago’s city attorney, believes the report contributed to a false sense of safety. “In 2011, the ATSDR lacked data to make any conclusion about the potential health risks,” she said.

Contacted by reporters, the ATSDR initially said it would respond to detailed questions about its 2011 report. Over a period of weeks it said it was finalizing its responses. A spokeswoman, Susan McBreairty, told Reuters the answers were “complicated.” Reporters also sought comment from the two ATSDR scientists listed as authors of the 2011 report; neither responded.

Ultimately, ATSDR didn’t address the questions.

Instead, it released a broad media statement Thursday saying it is evaluating new EPA data “to determine if a human health hazard has developed since the Agency’s 2011 public health assessment (PHA) of the USS Lead and Smelter site.”

A new analysis will come next year, ATSDR said in the statement, and “will help determine if additional public health activities are warranted.”

BARRIER BETWEEN CHILDREN, SOIL

The report’s findings factored significantly into EPA’s decision not to conduct more urgent soil testing or urge residents to relocate, said EPA Region Five Administrator Robert Kaplan. Believing residents weren’t at imminent risk, EPA focused on a multi-year plan to gradually test for and replace lead-tainted soil.

Once EPA completed its soil-sampling this year, the scope of the danger for children was clear.

“The high levels of lead in many yards in East Chicago would require a barrier to be placed between children and the soil, to protect them,” said Dr. Helen Binns, a pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago and professor at Northwestern University’s medical school, who reviewed the testing data with Reuters.

EPA’s sampling found that 50 percent of the West Calumet homes tested had lead in their topsoil exceeding 1,200 parts per million, or three times the federal “hazard” level for residential areas.

That level warrants “time-critical” removal action within six months to protect human health, EPA standards say. In the most polluted yard found, a top layer of soil had 45,000 parts per million of lead.

Environmental Protection Agency signs that read "DO NOT play in the dirt or around the mulch" are seen at the West Calumet Complex in East Chicago, Indiana,

Environmental Protection Agency signs that read “DO NOT play in the dirt or around the mulch” are seen at the West Calumet Complex in East Chicago, Indiana, U.S. September 16, 2016. REUTERS/Michelle Kanaar

Patrick MacRoy, a former head of the lead poisoning prevention program in Chicago, expressed shock after reviewing the ATSDR report. He found especially troubling its conclusion that children faced no threat of lead exposure.

“I can’t believe anyone with any degree of training or familiarity with environmental health would ever make (that) statement,” MacRoy said. “I can’t believe that no one reviewing that report internally, or even at EPA or the state, wouldn’t have flagged that as grossly misstating the available evidence.”

“I generally respect ATSDR, but that report is embarrassingly bad,” he said.

GRAPHIC – Industry and Housing: http://tmsnrt.rs/2d3MtIp

In recent months, 10 children under age 7 at West Calumet houses or in nearby areas were confirmed to have elevated lead levels, or around 5 percent of those tested, according to Indiana’s State Department of Health.

Following the notorious lead contamination of the drinking water supply in Flint, Michigan, around 4.9 percent of children tested there had high blood lead levels.

In East Chicago, more monitoring is planned, and the recent results do not mean children are in the clear, experts said.

Blood lead testing is usually indicated for children ages one and two. Ingesting lead-tainted soil, dust or paint chips is most common among infants and toddlers with hand-to-mouth behavior, said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, an expert on neurotoxins at Simon Fraser University.

A child poisoned at age two will often later test within a normal range. But the earlier exposure may have already wrought irreversible damage, including lifelong cognitive impairments.

‘WHAT ARE THEY DIGGING FOR?’

Today, outside the orderly brick houses in the community – due west of Gary, Indiana, and some 23 miles south of Chicago – moving vans are parked, and poster board signs warn residents not to play in the dirt.

Some of the 92 EPA staffers on site go door to door to speak with residents, offering testing and clean-up for lead inside their homes. Contractors have placed mulch over exposed dirt areas.

The forced exodus of tenants comes after East Chicago’s mayor told them this summer that lead and arsenic contamination in the area made it unacceptably risky to live here, especially for the area’s more than 600 children.

“I have lived here for five years and was never told anything about contamination until now,” said Akendra Erving, a mother of five young children who is moving her family to Alabama. “In May or June, I started to see these crews digging in peoples’ yards. ‘What are they digging for?’ I thought.

“Now I know.”

Recently, Erving got more bad news. A test showed that her three-year-old son, King, had a blood lead level of 8 micrograms per deciliter. Her daughter Kelis, 4, tested at 9 micrograms per deciliter. CDC recommends a public health response for children who test at 5 or above.

The lead crisis is the focus of several agencies, including ATSDR. EPA has taken a leading role, with Indiana’s State Department of Health, city officials, state environmental officials and federal and local housing agencies also involved.

Tensions and finger-pointing among the parties has sometimes grown heated. In July, East Chicago’s mayor wrote EPA a scathing letter, accusing the agency of withholding soil testing data that demonstrated grave health risks.

EPA’s Kaplan says the soil data was shared with the city as soon as the EPA could verify it, in May.

Recently, a “peacekeeper” division of the U.S. Justice Department, its Community Relations Service, stepped in to de-escalate conflicts.

ON TOP OF ANACONDA

The West Calumet Housing complex stands near the center of a once humming U.S. industry hub. It was also a dirty one.

In the early 1970s, the houses were erected atop the former Anaconda Lead and International Refining Company. For decades, the plant churned out white lead pigment for use in paint.

In 1978, the United States outlawed the type of paint Anaconda produced for residential use. That and other measures brought a sharp drop in average U.S. blood lead levels in recent decades. No level of lead in the blood is safe for children.

Next door was another smelter, USS Lead. From 1920 through 1985, the facility refined lead or lead products. Its blast furnaces pumped out soot that blanketed the land where the housing complex stands.

Also nearby was a facility, formerly operated by chemicals giant DuPont, that produced lead arsenate from 1928-1949. Its main ingredients were lead and arsenic. The product was banned as an insecticide in 1988.

Much of the waste was stockpiled within the city’s industrial complexes. Sometimes it got spread over nearby marshland or dumped in the Calumet River.

Back in 2009, this corner of East Chicago, a working class city of 29,000, was placed on the federal Superfund’s National Priorities List, or NPL.

Michael Berkoff, an EPA project manager who led a 2012 public hearing in East Chicago to inform residents about clean-up plans, described the NPL as “EPA’s nationwide list of the most contaminated sites in the country.”

Numbering more than 1,300 nationwide, the Superfund sites require clean-up to protect the environment and human health. In many cases, the companies that used to operate them folded years ago.

At the hearing, Berkoff laid out EPA’s long-term goal of removing contaminated soil from West Calumet yards and other polluted zones in East Chicago. “Some of the contamination here is at higher levels than we would consider hazardous waste,” he told the audience, according to a transcript.

Years earlier, the EPA had already cleaned up several area yards where topsoil testing detected lead levels exceeding 1,200 parts per million, ppm.

The next round of remediation EPA proposed would cost tens of millions of dollars and take a few years, Berkoff said. At West Calumet, wherever EPA found yards whose shallow soil exceeded 400 ppm of lead, it would excavate and replace the layer with clean soil.

To fund the effort, EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice pursued what they called potential responsible parties for some of the area’s contamination. In 2014, chemicals company DuPont and ARCO, a unit of oil giant BP, agreed to contribute $26 million to the East Chicago clean-up.

Under a consent decree, the companies acknowledged no wrongdoing.

ARCO said it had taken on certain liabilities after it acquired the Anaconda Company in the late 1970’s, though it never operated the Anaconda lead plant itself.

DuPont said it cooperated with EPA but its responsibilities under the consent decree were assumed by the Chemours Company, a former DuPont business now operating independently, a DuPont spokesman said. Chemours said it will cooperate with the EPA, a spokesman said.

To date, the earth-moving envisaged in the plans EPA’s Berkoff described in 2012 hasn’t happened. Securing funds, soil testing, and issues that crept up with contractors all took time. West Calumet soil replacement would have started this summer, EPA’s Kaplan said. Instead, the city plans to raze the houses.

TROUBLED TRACT

The CDC’s role in ensuring the health of people near Superfund sites is enshrined in federal law. When an area is added to the National Priority List, the ATSDR conducts an independent public health assessment.

ATSDR’s role is advisory, but its reports can lead to strongly worded health bulletins or other actions, including condemnation of properties deemed unfit for human habitation.

EPA commissioned the ATSDR report because “we wanted to know, is it an emergency, time-critical response or something that needs a remedy but isn’t necessarily as urgent?” said Kaplan.

The CDC branch concluded that results from childhood blood tests in the region suggested there was no risk.

Other report statements appeared to support that finding: Virtually all children in the area were being tested for lead poisoning, the report said, seeming to reflect close monitoring. Kids living in the area had blood lead levels “consistent with the national average,” it said.

Properties found to contain unsafe levels of lead in the soil had already been cleaned up by the EPA, the ATSDR said, and local health officials offered assurances there were no reports of health problems linked to lead.

Citing Indiana Department of Health data from the 1990s through 2008, ATSDR said children in East Chicago had experienced a sharp decline in blood lead levels.

Yet the report did not specifically cite the most recent blood testing data from residents at the West Calumet Housing Complex, or the census tract where it is located.

Reuters obtained testing data from the Indiana census tract, labeled 303, from 2005 through 2015. The data compiled by Indiana shows that 21.8 percent of children aged up to 6 tested there had blood lead readings above CDC’s current “elevated” threshold.

Although only a portion of the area’s children were being tested in the period, the 303 tract registered 160 elevated test results among small children. That was more than in any other tract in Lake County, where East Chicago is located, and more than in all but a dozen of Indiana’s 1,507 census tracts.

As recently as 2014, 25 percent of the children tested in the 303 tract had elevated levels.

During that same year, Indiana data shows, around 6.4 percent of kids tested across the state had elevated lead levels. CDC estimates show that, across the United States, the prevalence of children with elevated blood lead levels is around 2.5 percent.

The ATSDR report credited Indiana’s state health department with “excellent work” in ensuring almost universal testing.

State and county data reviewed by Reuters tell a different story. The annual rate of blood lead testing among children aged up to 6 in Indiana hovered around 7 percent in recent years. Although around 20 percent of children in East Chicago were tested each year between 2005 and 2010, the rate plummeted to 5 percent in 2014.

As for the ATSDR report’s claim that it had heard of no concerns from local health officials, City Attorney Morgan said the agency never consulted East Chicago’s health department, which declined comment.

The Indiana State Department of Health told Reuters it “does not support the conclusions of that report,” without elaborating.

UPROOTED TO NEVADA

Shantel Allen is a 28-year-old mother of five who has lived at West Calumet since 2011, the year of ATSDR’s report. Allen is moving her family to southern Nevada next month. The housing voucher the family received won’t cover the high costs of the move, she said.

In July, around the time Allen was told her current home faces the wrecking ball, she received a letter from Indiana’s health department. It said her daughter, Samira, 2, had tested positive for lead poisoning with a level of 33 micrograms per deciliter, nearly seven times the elevated threshold. That result, the letter said, was from a test conducted 17 months earlier, around Samira’s first birthday.

“I wanted to know how she was exposed to lead, when and where?” Allen said. “I wanted to know why I was only informed more than a year later.”

The state health department said privacy law does not allow it to comment on a specific patient’s case. However, it said local health departments have primary responsibility for conveying blood lead test results to family.

Since July, Allen has had all her kids tested. Two had elevated levels, she said.

Then, last month, Allen recalled an information packet she’d received from the EPA, dated from late 2014. She didn’t pay much attention to it back then, because she says she didn’t understand its implications. It said the agency had conducted soil testing in her yard.

Reading back the findings recently, she said EPA had detected lead at 4,510 parts per million in the top layer of her front yard, or more than 10 times the action level. Arsenic was found at nearly 13 times the action level.

It was the yard her older kids had always played in, often tracking in dirt to the apartment, where Samira would crawl around on the floor.

Another former West Calumet resident, Krystle Jackson, said she moved her family out in July after two of her children tested with elevated lead levels. Her son, Kavon, 1, had a level of 7. She relocated to her parents’ home in Cedar Lake, 40 minutes south, which is facing a potential bank foreclosure. Jackson worries she’ll be left homeless.

The timing of Jackson’s move, weeks before hundreds of other West Calumet residents learned the complex will be demolished, made her ineligible for a voucher others are getting to move into public housing.

“The housing authority told me there was nothing they could do for me,” she said.

“I just wanted to get out of the public housing because nobody could tell me why my kids were being exposed to lead.”

(Editing by Ronnie Greene)

U.S. arrests Indiana man it says planned to join Islamic State

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An 18-year-old man who authorities said planned to fly to Morocco and travel to Islamic State-controlled territory to join the group was arrested in Indiana on Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department said.

FBI agents arrested Akram Musleh, of Brownsburg, Indiana, as he was attempting to board a bus from Indianapolis to New York, from where he planned to fly to Morocco, the department said in a statement.

“The criminal complaint alleges that he planned to provide personnel (himself) to ISIL,” the statement added, referring to the militant Islamist group.

If convicted, Musleh faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, a lifetime of supervised release and a $250,000 fine, the statement said.

(Reprting by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Dan Grebler and Peter Cooney)