After spending all semester thus far in the Chicago River watershed, on October 10 we moved a few miles – a world away – to that of the Calumet. I always feel there’s something in the air in South East Chicago and Northwest Indiana. Maybe it’s just too many layers of history, too many stories, too many battles. Maybe it’s the almost uncountable number of Superfund cleanup sites. Maybe it’s all the years of contamination various and sundry corporate entities have buried under the homes of the families that worked for them, trusted them, and in some cases gave their lives for them.
In fact, the layers of history are so thick herethat if they would be basically illegible were not for the expert guidance of our friends at Southeast Environmental Task Force .
Over the years, they’ve generously shared their hard-won wisdom and experience with many cohorts of Roosevelt students in my own classes and many others. This semester, some of the constant battles for public heath in their communities kept them from being able to meet up with us, but they assured me I’d done my homework and was well prepared to it introduce students to the area.
I couldn’t even pretend to do justice to what we would have learned from folks who’ve lived in the area for generations, but we still learned quite a lot, for this is an area that truly, as the students observed, must be experienced to be understood.
It would be challenging to appropriately cover, here, the history of industrialization and deindustrialization in this area that was once home to more steel mills going anywhere in the world, the beating metal heart of American economic expansion during the late 19th and 20th centuries.
Instead, we tried to focus on a few emergent stories. One of these is that of the way that industry is literally gobbling up communities in this region. One of our first visits, after driving through the dystopian acreage of the BP refinery, was to the jarringly idyllic downtown of Whiting, Indiana, where BP has invested quite a bit of money to keep residents happy in the face of its expansion of its massive refinery (7th largest in the nation), which has eaten up more and more if the surrounding communities and all but swallowed the historic planned community of Marktown. A National Historic District designed by Charles Van Doren Shaw, and one of the first modern planned communities, it is being slowly purchased by BP (using tax incentives the IN govt granted them) and demolished.
Another story born of the crucible of fossil fuel processing in this area is the presence of 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.
But there’s plenty to occupy the good folks of the Southeast Side yet. Perhaps the most well-publicized is the continuing presence of lead in the soil and water of East Chicago, Indiana. Lead levels in the soil there have tested at 228 times the level that triggers an EPA clean up, though increasingly experts do not believe if there is any safe level of lead exposure, especially for children and pregnant women. These high levels are primarily due to the fact that much of the town, including a public housing project called West Calumet, was built on top of the former site of a company called USS lead that was in fact a refinery for the substance. Worse, it was known at the time that the housing project was built that the site was probably contaminated. Mike Pence knew about the emerging crisis and left Indiana before taking any steps to rectify the situation, including declaring a state of emergency so that the town would be eligible for federal
clean up funds. On the other hand, the lead in the water primarily stems from the use of lead service lines, something that most homes in Chicago have as well. However, the federal government requires large cities like Chicago to put chemicals in their water that over time build up to create a coating that prevents lead from leaching out into the water. Smaller towns are not required to do the same and the city of East Chicago has not done so.
Back on the Illinois side of the state line, the same folks that brought you petcoke now also offer new poisoning in the form of manganese piles. Manganese when inhaled or otherwise ingested can cause similar effects to those of lead. Piles of loose manganese have been sitting open for years in the communities of the southeast side like Hegewisch.
Even the way that cleanups have happened are not always particularly environmentally sound or just. During decades of heavy use, the Indiana Harbor Canal accumulated tons of highly contaminated sediments containing compounds like PCBs in levels well above what is considered safe. The Canal is now due for cleanup by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps wants to dredge the canal and put the contaminated sediments in a confined disposal facility located near the canal – ie, in one of the very communities that has been affected by the canal’s polluted water for so long. Residents want the canal dredged more thoroughly – and want any dredged materials to be stored far away from them. They believe they’ve taken one for the team a few too many times.
Our tour also took us past the contaminated Federated Metals site, where Former EPA Chief Scott Pruitt was seen skulking around earlier this summer, before making a deal with some residents to compensate them, rather than passing a more sweeping rule to regulate Federated Metals’ toxic emissions.