From this view it looks like we are literally cooking ourselves.
A Prologue to Black Holes
Even a “Black Hole” has a location, and to most Americans East Chicago is a black hole. It is not among the many places they visit or are aware of. It is a place of distant images and vague emotions. East Chicago is a gap area in America’s geography. There is nothing new about the presence of gaps in ones awareness. Americans are famous for their limited awareness, but usually we associate those limits with what is happening in the rest of the world, not five minutes for one of its great cities.
I am amazed at how thorough and comfortable Americans are at maintaining and preserving this black hole. Millions transverse the area daily. Commuters who travel between Chicago and the East witness the conditions from high up as they cross the Skyway, and Cline Avenue bridges.
Black Holes are perfect places for making things or people disappear. They also provide cover for stomping out civil unrest and fracturing organize opposition.
So who occupies our black hole.
East Chicago is home to BP (the largest oil refinery in Midwest and second in the nation), Mittal Steel (largest integrated Mill in the country), U.S. Steel, and many other large legacy industries. They own much of the land (>80%) and most of the value in this city.
I cannot help but think that all this smoke represents an intentional failure of civil society to protect its citizens. To who’s benefit? And who benefits from a fractured civil society?
Under the Plumb of Industry:
Included under the plumb of industry are social and environmental costs. In addition to the large industries, East Chicago is also home to some of the poorest census tracts in America. Some of these census blocks have a medium household income less than $11,000. Yet, these same residents pay among the highest property taxes in the country at 8.43%. This is literally the most regressive taxing structure in America. You can’t make this stuff up. And yet, these numbers don’t give an accurate picture of poverty in East Chicago. They are skewed to the high end due to lack of reporting in this population and high city government employment rates. And yes, all this was accomplished under local Democratic leadership.
To make matters worse The Mayor and the East Chicago City Council recently provided BP with a $164 million tax abatement (with out a single public hearing – an illegal act in itself) on the promise of 70 new jobs. These new highly technical jobs will require an advance education that East Chicago residents simply lack. When BP and IDEM held the public hearing last spring on the air permit in Hammond and not East Chicago, BP employees and contractors came out in great numbers. However, less than 3% of them live in East Chicago under the plumb of BP. Too often we identify BP with Whiting, but 2/3 of this new project is presently being planned for East Chicago.
The City of East Chicago is also the single largest employer of East Chicagoans, with 18% of the Workforce employed by the city and city related taxing districts (corporate City, School City, Library, Sanitation, etc.). That translates into ~28% of households receiving a paycheck from the city.
The School District is also the lowest performing district in the State of Indiana, despite having the highest per student investment.
I could go on…
Based on EPA’s Toxic Release Inventories (TRI), Lake County is ranked as the 7th most polluted county in the country due to atmospheric releases. This high ranking in pollution is attributed to BP, Mittal and U.S. Steel, all of which are concentrated on East Chicago’s lakefront and within a mile outside its borders. This would probably make East Chicago one of the most polluted cities in the country, if not the world. Still, this did not stop the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) and the USEPA from recently re-designating the region as an attainment zone for sulfur dioxide, a convenient re-designation in light of BP’s decision to refine sour crude from the Canadian Tar Sands – a high sulfur product.
The indiana Harbor Shipping Canal (IHSC) is considered the most polluted waterway in America. It is the only “Area of Concern” on the Great Lakes that fails all measurable “Beneficial Uses.” After 30-years of the Clean Water Act not a single environmental project has been initiated to clean this waterway. The government may have initiated a few projects to stem some releases into the canal, and they may have issued a few fines, but outside of that no real progress has been made, not even the attenuation of time has significantly improved its condition. Today, the City of East Chicago continues to be the greatest violator in Indiana of its NPDES permits, and has not made any efforts to re-engineer its combine sewer overflow system.
If the by-products of industry were included into products and sold on the market, they would be recalled. But since they are freely distributed in communities like East Chicago, the citizens can absorb their benefit. Under such complex plumbs it is almost impossible for a resident to associate a health condition with a source, and yet that is exactly what is being requesting of them to gain standing in the permitting process. A process that needs to be scrapped.
Amazingly, East Chicago no longer has an Environmental Department to guard the health and welfare of its citizens. This too was accomplished under local Democratic leadership. With such glaring impairments you have to ask yourself why there are NO environmental groups doggedly fighting to clean this environment. You would think East Chicago would be a poster child for all kinds of humanitarian and environmental causes. Has this not happened because, I am just wrong in my assessment? That my data conveniently supports a false picture? Or that I do not include any important gains in recent years?
By all measures this area is frozen by 19th century steel-town politics. It is easy for the delicate nature of a post-industrial society to look away from the damage that these industries continue to reek on segments of our society. The NIMBY instinct (not in my back yard) is an attack on the Health and Welfare of our weakest citizen’s.
It may be now be an appropriate time to review the incremental approach environmental groups have adopted in the last two decades and access their achievements. Yes, we can say this approach has delivered some benefits in improving the overall environmental health in our region. yet, it has become overwhelmingly clear that these gains have not met the minimum requirements necessary to sustain a healthy community. East Chicago is a case in point. In fact, it has become apparent, that the incremental approach has failed miserably to meet the requirements necessary to sustain human life on this earth. Granted, the world is large and there reach is limited. Still, we clearly need a new regime, one which maintains the level of trust with industry that the incrementalist have forged, and moves this relationship forward to actually meet the minimum requirements for a healthy sustainable community in East Chicago and elsewhere. There is a lot of work to be done, legislation to be adopted, and 3.4 billion small steps to be made.
Someday, I hope to look out my window and see a green inspiration.