FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: Marianne Holland
August 6, 2014 (317) 702-4847
Study on Environmental Injustice in Northwest Indiana Released to Public
Report Shows Serious Inequities, New On-the-Ground Concerns, Little Recourse for Citizens
(VALPARAISO, IN) The Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) is releasing a first-of-its kind study on environmental injustices facing northwest Indiana. The HEC report, with the link at the bottom of this release, focuses on the communities of Gary, East Chicago and Hammond.
These three communities have the highest concentration of heavy industrial activity than anywhere else in the state. The area is home to three of the nation’s largest integrated steel mills, one of the nation’s largest oil refineries, coal-fired power plants, countless industrial facilities, and hundreds of hazardous waste sites. The report also points to data revealing that residents in these communities live with some of the nation’s worst air quality, highly contaminated waters, as well elevated cancer and asthma rates.
“These environmental and public health issues compound the social and economic problems faced by the residents of these mostly-minority populated cities, each of which has a poverty rate that is at least 500% greater than the statewide average,” said Kim Ferraro, HEC senior staff attorney and co-author of the report. “These communities collectively provide an especially powerful example of a nationwide problem, in which poverty begets pollution and pollution begets poverty.”
To better understand the community perspective, HEC — with help from the Calumet Project and local chapters of the Indiana NAACP — conducted a survey of more than 300 residents. Results show citizens do not have access to environmental justice (defined by the EPA as fair treatment and meaningful involvement in environmental matters), but have a good idea of the tools they need to resolve this problem. On average, those surveyed identified living with at least three environmental hazards in their community; air pollution, sewer overflows, and garbage dumps were the top three identified. Although many wanted to take action, they were unsure who to contact or what to do. Still, more than two in three residents had attempted some action to address environmental threats, but only one in five reported any success. The reasons highlighted as key barriers are: lack of understanding, lack of trust in the system, and lack of financial resources.
The HEC environmental justice report also takes a hard look at a dump site in western Gary known as “the J-Pit.” to illustrate the real human health and quality of life aspects of environmental injustice. The J-Pit is a vast abandoned sand mine, covering 114 acres and excavated to 35 feet below ground level. It represents a five-decade legacy of prevarication and broken promises, beginning with the original promise that the sand mine would be turned into a sportsman’s club only to be later slated for a waste dump. The J-Pit is currently being gradually filled in, under a contract between the City and Beemsterboer Slag Corporation – the same company involved in the area petcoke controversy. The City contract specifies that only clean, unregulated fill is to be used, but community residents have seen noncompliant fill being dumped, and no effective oversight by relevant government authorities. It is also unclear whether the City has acquired the necessary permits for discharging into the Little Calumet, nor what contaminants may be present in the discharged water. It is likewise unclear what effect the filling of the pit is having on the flow of contaminated groundwater in the area, which has traditionally drained into the J-Pit and then pumped out. To gain better understanding, HEC partnered with engaged citizens to collect surface water samples from various potential sites of interest in the vicinity. These samples identified a number of potential concerns in the neighborhood surrounding the J-Pit, including extremely alkaline runoff from the Gary landfill and a dramatic spike in nitrate levels in the Little Calumet, immediately downstream of the J-Pit outflow point.
Since the J-Pit is merely one node in northern Lake County’s tangled web of environmental problems, HEC also conducted community-assisted air quality sampling at different locations, including schools, throughout the area. A methodology was used that enables students and community members to take highly reliable samples after a brief training. The sampling identified contaminants in the area’s air that are not typically monitored, including a dramatic spike in a chemical used in metal extraction in the air at a park in East Chicago.
Finally, HEC undertook a comprehensive review of the nonprofit and governmental resources potentially available to help residents tackle environmental threats and found no staffed organization, non-profit or otherwise, dedicated to addressing the Region’s serious environmental injustices. While the HEC report identifies environmental justice resources at the Great Lakes and national levels, there is not one organization giving its full attention to providing legal and technical assistance to these northwest Indiana communities’ complex and intertwined environmental problems.
On a positive note, the organizational survey found a vibrant civil society of community empowerment and faith-based groups interested in issues of social justice generally. According to Ferraro, “these grassroots organizations represent potential, valuable partners in taking action on an issue that we, at HEC, believe must be solved as a matter of human decency, social equity and long-term economic prosperity.”
CLICK HERE for the full report.
About Hoosier Environmental Council:
Founded thirty years ago, the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) is the largest statewide environmental policy organization in Indiana. HEC aims to set a new path for Indiana, embracing practices and policies that dramatically reduce the footprint of transportation, industry, commerce, and agriculture on the environment. Visit hecweb.org for more information. You can follow HEC’s activities on Twitter: @hec_ed, and on Facebook at facebook.com/hecweb.