Oct. 17: Thomas Frank Takes Us On a Virtual Toxic Tour of East Chicago

Urban planner, artist,former director of the Indiana Harbor Shipping Canal, online entrepreneur – there’s very little Thomas Frank doesn’t do and NOTHING he doesn’t know about the political landscape of Northwest Indiana.


While our last blog post documented our exploration of perhaps the most famous polluted waterway in America – Bubbly Creek – as October has progressed this semester’s Loundy Human Rights Project Scholars have moved somewhat further south to the Calumet region, the borderlands between Illinois and Indiana. October 10th we explored these borderlands physically, and this past week,  Thomas Frank, of Southeast Environmental Task Force and the Community Strategy Group (among many other community organizations), took us virtually into a deeper dive into the Indiana side of the border.

The tireless, brilliant and scathing Thomas Frank might be as close to a renaissance man as I know – artist, urban planner, civil engineer, historian, husband, father, and truthteller extraordinaire. There’s seemingly nothing Mr. Frank doesn’t know something about, and nearly any topic that we touched reminded him of at least 10 other stories that were relevant but that we probably wouldn’t have time for.

A lifelong area native with roots in both the North Shore and the Southeast Side,  Mr. Frank  often describes the way that Northwest Indiana and Chicago essentially drove each other’s success for most of their history, with much industry being located in Northeast Indiana and other forms of production and financial power located in Chicago. Effectively, for Frank, Northwest Indiana has been an industrial colony of Chicago. Within Indiana itself, downstate political power has attempted to bracket off the industrial damage from the more affluent downstate areas, relegating it to an area inhabited by those who are considered politically expendable.
Sometime in the mid twentieth century, however , the fortunes of Chicago and Northwest Indiana became decoupled. As the Illinois side of the border has continued to deindustrialize, Northwest Indiana  has  become inexorably further industrialized, with large scale manufacturing and fossil fuel operations literally swallowing the towns around them. (For him, much of the story of the region must be understood in the context of climate justice, since the Chicago/NWI  region is where many pipelines end. )

Some of this is due to Illinois’ has far more muscular protections for the environment.

Some of Indiana’s pollution superlatives.

Since Indiana’s are quite lax, it, in contrast, has the worst water pollution in the country. According to the EPA, the 2012, 8% of total toxic releases into waterways occurred in Indiana. in addition, Indiana has what the Center for Public Integrity refers to  as more ‘super polluters’ than any other state in the country.  Northwest Indiana is home to both one of the nation’s largest refineries  (BP Whiting) and the nation’s largest steel mill, Arcelor Mittal’s Indiana Harbor Works. While  some of the industrial fallout that has plagued the Illinois side of the region has involved the storage of hazardous materials like petcoke and manganese, Frank makes the point that the Indiana side is still functioning industry (rather than ‘just’ storage).


One large firm  present here for many years was USS Lead (later acquired by Atlantic Richfield Co. and E.I. Du Pont De Nemours). The firm’s manufacturing process disbursed lead into the air,  which then settled in the soils around the factory. Perhaps if no one we’re living here by this would only be an environmental harm for the plants and animals in the region. But unfortunately, in the 1970s, a public housing project was built directly adjacent to the factory (and several others that were also emitting lead and other potentially harmful elements and compounds).In 1985, the local US Congressperson asked the EPA to initiate a hazardous waste removal process at the site under the Superfund law, after the Indiana State Board of Health determined the firm was responsible for lead contamination in adjacent areas. EPA sampling in the area found soil lead levels of up to  11,000 ppm (residential maximum levels according to EPA standards are 400-1200 ppm). USS Lead ceased operations and declared bankruptcy the following month.

A few of the many industries in the area.

After 8 years of legal wrangling, the firm finally began cleanup operations in 1993, and many in the area assumed the problem had been dealt with. However, new testing in 1997 found that  a third of the children tested in the area have blood levels that exceed federal standards. However, two locations in West Calumet public housing were tested and found to have lead levels within acceptable limits. During this time, remediation was delayed in part because USS Lead was fighting the EPA’s ruling that USS lead was the sole source of the contamination. (There were at least two other proximate facilities whose operations emitted lead into the immediate area). USS Lead finally completed capping and containment activities on its former property in 2002.  The following year, new EPA testing in adjacent residential areas found that over half exceeded the 400 ppm standards, sometimes by 7.5 times. Over the course of the next two years, additional testing triggered emergency cleanup operations at several sites within the  project. As a result, the site was moved to the EPA’s National Priorities List (a list of the most highly polluted properties in the nation) in 2009. More properties were remediated under Superfund in 2010-14. In 2014 a Consent Decree was reached with DuPont and Atlantic Richfield to fund all cleanup in the two major areas of contamination.

This slide describes “ecocide”, a term that captures the regions once-teeming, now-declining, biodiversity, amongst other things.

In November, the EPA began extensive soil sampling in the area of greatest concern, with final data received by the city from the EPA in May 2016. The following month, the city asked federal officials to help immediately relocate all residents in the most contaminated zone before any further actions are taken, to protect them from additional exposure.  The mayor also ordered the city to perform blood lead testing on residents of West Calumet. On July 25, after  failure to  respond by the EPA, the mayor circulated letters to all West Calumet residents advising them to temporarily relocate due to soil contamination.  Meanwhile, the  Chicago Housing Authority was applying to  to U.S. Housing and Urban Development to demolish West Calumet, and in August began to issue housing vouchers to allow residents to move elsewhere. In February 2017  the East Chicago Housing Authority finalized an environmental site assessment which stated that “Groundwater sampling results  show arsenic, lead, chromium and benz(a)anthracene contamination present above IDEM remediation closure…. levels” (Reese 2016).  This finally triggered a HUD demolition approval later in the year, but demolition was delayed further as specialised air monitors were acquired. Demolition finally began in April 2018. 

1200 people have  been removed. However,  many of them had lived in the neighborhood for generations -in fact some families  moved to East Chicago together during the Great Migration and had been together in and around the West Calumet area ever since. So the evacuation seperated some communities that had been intact for potentially hundreds of years.

The Center for Disease Control was actually supposed to keep a registry of the people that left, in part because one proposal was that under Superfund and the Consent Decree they be granted medicare for life, since their lead poisoning could indeed affect their entire lifelong health trajectories. However  – for one reason or another   – this did not happen.  According to Frank, the city and HUD were attempting to get people out of there quickly. Clearly there were legitimate health reasons for this, but in addition, both these entities had potential liability. This created a disincentive for them to keep track of who might have been affected. Notably, Mike Pence also failed to call for a State of Emergency in East Chicago before he left the Governor’s Mansion.

Mr. Frank left us, fortunately, with some success stories as well – though notably, many of them come from the Illinois side of the border.

One of these is the recent victory against petcoke, a filthy byproduct of tar sands processing that has been stored by Koch Industries in their KCBX terminals for years. It’s worth mentioning because it’s something that residents were very successful in being able to clear out after a great deal of lobbying of the mayor and the contributions of groups from all over the region.








Reese, Sarah. 2016. “TIMELINE: History of the USS Lead Superfund site in E.C” Northwest Indiana Times, Sep 4, 2016.

About Bethany Barratt

Dr. Barratt earned her PhD from the University of California in 2002, and her BA in Political Science/History from Duke University in 1994. She is Director of the Joseph Loundy Human Rights Project, which joins forces with community partners in Chicago and cities abroad to draw and apply comparative lessons to make measurable gains in respect for human rights in urban settings. Professor Barratt has conducted archival and field research in Yellowstone National Park, Central Asia, the UK, Canada, and Australia. She is author or editor of several books including “Human Rights and Foreign Aid” (Routledge, 2007), "The Politics of Harry Potter" (Palgrave McMillan, 2012), and coeditor o "Public Opinion and War: Lessons from Iraq" (Potomac, 2012). She has also authored articles on environmental politics and justice, conservation policy, human rights, foreign aid, US, British, Canadian, and Australian foreign policy, and counterterrorism, in Political Research Quarterly, The Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and edited volumes from Ashgate and Lexington Books. Besides her teaching experience at Roosevelt and the University of California, she has also taught in a number of jails and prisons. She is an officer or member of several scholarly associations including the American Political Science Association and the International Studies Association.
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