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View Outside My Window II: A Primer on East Chicago

I realize I have yet to properly introduce people to East Chicago. It would be too easy to write a book but I will try to keep this post to a minimum. To the

East Chicago is an industrial fiefdom. There is no other city in the country that is home to the world’s Largest integrated Steel Mill, the second largest Oil Refinery in the country and lies on the the world’s greatest fresh water resource managed by international treaties. These facts along make addressing the unique issues facing East Chicago that much more difficult. To manage the affairs of East Chicago is to be familiar with the intricacies and needs of advanced industrial processes and concerns, while being intimately versed in the details of environmental law and the ways of the USEPA and IDEM. It is also to know that East Chicago has the greatest negative impact on the world’s greatest fresh water resource – Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes, and being willing and able to participate in national and international efforts, laws and treaties to protect this fragile resource. It is to also deal the massive amounts of contamination already in our land, water, and air left by 100-years of industrial and environmental mismanagement.

To manage the affairs of East Chicago is to finally address the social wrongs wrought on a severely weakened, fractured and distrustful civil society.

NEIGHBORHOODS (click to enlarge)

East Chicago is known as the twin city – East Chicago & the Harbor.

East Chicago has an pattern of heavy industry cutting through, dividing and isolating what remains of 14 residential neighborhoods. 80% of E.C. is zoned “heavy Industrial” with about 50% of this land out of productive use and considered heavily contaminated, e.g. a brownfield. City Administrations, including the present Pabey administration, treat the city as an industrial park with scattered housing. I remember walking into a meeting between City officials and CenterPoint Properties, with the city proposing to executives of CenterPoint to clear-out the Northside neighborhood for an inter-modal park (because of the good rail access). As a testament to CenterPoints’ character, you could tell they thought the city was insane to consider such a proposal. To a certain degree this pattern is a remnant of 19th century steel town thinking, but to characterize it as past thinking is not to knowledge what continues to exist through a series of grandfather clauses, legacy practices of industrial exploitation, and group think today.

Just twenty years ago an entire neighborhood was bulldosed for the construction of a new industry – Pollution Control Industries (PCI). PCI manages hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal. Most people may remember them for planning in the late 1990’s to ship napalm across the country by rail to dispose in East Chicago. After a public outcry from communities which would have seen these trains going through their communities, the plans were scrapped. Today, due in part to this episode, the public is not made aware of what goes through their communities. PCI serves many industries, among them the Chemical (including pharmaceutical, petrochemical, Paint and coatings and Plastics) and Printing markets. Since opening it has been a great noisense to homeowners. This neighborhood sat between two main east/west streets (Columbus Dr. and Chicago Ave.) and adjacent to land that was intended to serve as a Central Park of the Twin City. It is now occupied by Praxair a producer of industrial gases.

Also twenty years ago part of the West Calumet neighborhood, a Federal Housing Project, was built on the site of the old U.S. Lead Foundry property. This occurred well after the creation of the USEPA, and our knowledge of the dangers Lead poses to children. Today the entire Calumet neighborhood is a superfund site.  It goes without saying that the Children in this neighborhood do present with high levels of lead. Besides taking years to characterize the conditions and hosting a public meeting, the USEPA has done NOTHING to clean the area, protect the residents or children who continue to live on site. Since the discovery of high levels of Lead U.S. Lead Foundry has been allowed to escape responsibility through bankruptcy, and the housing commission, who built the homes, has never been held responsible.

You will notice in the above map not only does industry cut-off neighborhoods from each other but it also cuts-access to Lake Michigan. As a lakefront community East Chicago only has a hundred linear feet of public beach snuggled between steel mills and casinos. There is no way to get to the beach from any neighborhood by foot or bike.

The medium home value in many of our neighborhoods adjacent to industry is <$15,000, before the housing crisis (national average before the housing crisis was $217,000, today it is $174,000).
And yet, with the State’s poorest citizens, East Chicagoan’s pay the highest property taxes in the state at 8.43%


East Chicago is where BP operates the largest refinery in the Midwest. Known as the Whiting Refinery, it is the second largest in the county. E.C. is also the location of ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel – the largest integrated Steel-mills in the world. City government recently gave BP a $164 million tax-abatement for a $3.8 billion project without a public hearing. The BP project proposes to locate six new cokers directly across the street from a neighborhood. This project has drawn attention from environmentalist outside the region because of the proposed environmental permits were in clear violation of both the clean water and clean air acts. No regional environmental groups protested and the permits were awarded by IDEM (Indiana Dept. of Environmental Management) and the USEPA.


E.C. is experiencing >20% unemployment rate due to the present economic downturn. yet during the “good economic times” of the 90’s and early 2000’s African American males experienced ~17% unemployment while Hispanic males experienced ~11% unemployment. This can be attributed to Globalization and Technical advances in the steel industry. Toward the end of the 1970’s East Chicago employed nearly 100,000 people in steel and steel related industries. Today, that number is down below 6,000 employees. Yet production continues to climb. City government is now the largest employer of East Chicagoans with ~18% of the workforce working for the city. That translates into ~28% of households receiving a paycheck from the Mayor.


East Chicago has a long history of local government corruption and civil unrest. This is the place where if you have a job you work for the city and they pay you to vote. They also pay you to put up political signs, canvass neighborhoods, show up at rallies and work the polls. And if they can feel your Love they will pay you to TAKE-CARE of political enemies – That’s a lot of money and a lot of Love. What other Mayor of a city with a population of 30,000 has $1 million to spread around during campaign season? Pete Visclosky, the local congressmen doesn’t spend nearly as much in a campaign cycle to stay in office and his district is far more reaching. So Why so much political money here, in East Chicago?

  • Who benefits from local government corruption and a fragmented civil society? Why of course – Industry benefits. Some would argue these are externalities of industry. I used to think that. But now I tend to believe industry has a direct hand in local government corruption and weakening organized opposition.
  • >41% of East Chicago’s adult population is considered functionally illiterate, with <2% having a college degree (national average is >20%).
  • Environment impacts due to Industry and a broken regulatory system.

Air Quality:
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. The source of pollution in Lake county is attributed three industries located in and around East Chicago and on Lake Michigan (BP, Mittal, and US 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 negative effects of industry are most intensely felt by the residents of East Chicago. They live at the pollution’s source.

Water Quality:
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.

  • About BP:
    • 25 years ago BP, then Amoco, moved its training facilities from Whiting to Naperville Illinois (which is a LEED certified campus, e.g. green) due to the lack of “Quality of Life” in NWI. BP is a major contributer to this lack of Quality of Life.
    • BP never held a single public meeting or hearing on this project in East Chicago. Not on the Tax abatement. Not on the permitting. Not on land use. The Residents of East Chicago never had input into the project.
    • About 10 days before the BP project was publicly announced, IDEM and the USEPA re-designated NWI from NON-Attainment to Attainment for Sulfur Dioxide. The Tar sands in Canada are high in sulfur content (a hazardous material).
    • About 7 days before the BP project was publicly announced, BP announces they will be moving their non-essential staff 2-miles away, and out of the “Blast zone.” This is in response to what occurred in Texas City in 2004.
  • 100 most dangerous chemical facilities [ Link ]
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