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Earth Day: Three Decades Since the Clean Water Act

It has been three decades since the enactment of the Clean Water Act and not a single project has been initiated to clean this country’s most polluted waterway – The Indiana Harbor Shipping Canal (IHSC).

The IHSC is the only body of water to fail all measurable beneficial uses. This human made waterway even impairs the industry that is both dependent on it and responsible for its condition. Yet, industry is not alone East Chicago carries some of the responsibility with its combine sewer overflow system. East Chicago is the single greatest violator of its NPDES permit in the State. Do to politics they haven’t been pursued. The same politics that recently approved BP’s water permit, despite the fact that it was in clear violation of the Clear Water Act. Today, it is not only about the pipe sticking into the waterway, but also surface runoff. Surface runoff is probably an even greater threat.

Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) likes to refer to data that indicates that non-point source pollution attributed to transportation is an even greater threat to the environment. This is true if you are measuring pollution levels from the concern of middle-class communities in the southern part of the Lake County or you decide to aggregate the data county wide. This does not do justice to those who live under the plumb of industry.

We can have discussions about whether it is save to drink water from the Chesapeake Bay – But we do know that it is NOT SAFE TO HAVE ANY CONTACT WITH THE WATER IN THE INDIANA HARBOR SHIPPING CANAL.

Perhaps the reason we can have a public discussion about the Chesapeake Bay is because it affects a large middle-class demographic. The IHSC does not. East Chicago is about 56% Hispanic and 38% Black with a medium income < $26,000. Is this an environmental justice issue – Yes. What is right ought to be enough to correct this, but economics of scale is in effect and I concede it needs to be. So why should middle-class midwesterns be concerned?

Because, if you draw any benefit from Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes it effects you. Because the IHSA flows into the world’s greatest fresh water resource – Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes. Because more than 6 million people in the Chicago Metropolitan region draw their drinking water from Lake Michigan (more than the entire population of Indiana which governs the releases). Because every time a barge goes into and out of the channel it scraps the bottom and resuspends contaminated sediments into the water column. Because $500,000,000 (half billion) of your tax dollars are going into maintaining this waterway as a navigation channel and $0 are going into maintaining it for environmental reasons. Because tens of millions of your tax dollars are being diverted into the pockets of a corrupt local political regime [ posted, here, here and here ]. It used to be, when it came to contamination “if you touch it you own it,” but under the Bush administration the constraints of commerce over-road environmental concerns.

Because of this.

The products produced in East Chicago factories are shipped across the country. The safety regime protecting consumers are far more stringent and protective than the environmental guidelines protecting residents from the by-products of these products. The IHSC and East Chicago is host to the Largest integrated Steel Mill in the country – Arcelor/Mittal, and the second largest oil refinery in the country – BP. Arcelor/Mittal supplies materials for appliances and vehicles. BP supplies gas to the more than 6 million residents who populate the Chicago Region.

Most of the photos above were taken in the late 1960s during an environmental campaign that eventually resulted in establishing the USEPA and the Clean Water Act. The only difference between then and now is the attenuation of time, where dilution became the solution. I don’t mean to disparage time, it is important. But:

  1. we haven’t been proactive to severely stem discharges, and
  2. we haven’t cleaned this body of water, and
  3. we haven’t set up a sustaining environmental regime to ensure it will remain clean well into the future.

In the end, after 30 years of the Clean Water Act the problem persists, and still no clean-up project has ever been initiated.

Frontline: Poisoned Waters

Categories: The Water I Drink
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