Planting the Seeds of Change: Reflections on a Tour of Southeast Chicago/Northwest Indiana

by Moses Viveros

A cold and cloudy day seemed to fit perfectly on our trip through the somber, industrial landscape that characterizes most of the Southeast Chicago and Northwest Indiana region. As part of Dr. Bethany Barratt’s Environmental Justice course at Roosevelt University this fall semester, we took a tour earlier this month with Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF) to visit heavily polluted communities not too far from downtown Chicago.

One constantly hears about environmental injustices happening throughout the world. There’s the group of protestors fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline to protect the integrity of their land and water resources. The city of Flint, MI still does not have a source of safe drinking water. It’s one thing to hear about these things in the news, but it is a completely different experience actually going down to visit these sites and seeing firsthand the environmental injustices that plague these communities.

Oil Refinery in NW Indiana

Oil Refinery in NW Indiana (photo: M. Viveros)

Southeast Chicago and Northwestern Indiana are home to myriad industrial sites. The communities in this area host countless oil refineries, factories, and steel mills. Consequently, this area is known as one of the heaviest polluted regions in the country. Many of the residents in the area live in what is known as a Superfund Site, as officially designated by the EPA. This indicates a heavily polluted area that is eligible for federally-funded cleanup and remediation.

In the case of Northwest Indiana, the soil has been so heavily contaminated by current and former industrial activity that the EPA has a testing facility in the region to continuously monitor soil contamination levels. This testing site itself is situated on a lot that is covered with a tarp, providing a barrier between the workers and the soil underneath.

EPA Testing Site

EPA Testing Site (photo: M. Viveros)

Just recently, residents of the West Calumet Housing complex learned that the soil outside of their homes contained 30 times more lead than what is considered safe. This is the same soil that children play on, the same soil that people grow food in. This news came along with notice by the mayor of East Chicago, IN, that the housing complex would be demolished, leaving more than a thousand residents scrambling to find new homes.

The plans came a shock to residents as they were previously under the impression that the EPA would be working to remediate the soil around their homes so that they would not have to leave. The housing complex is also near Carrie Gosch Elementary school, which was closed in August amid news about heavily contaminated soil in the area.

Broken Oil Pipeline near Gary, IN

Broken Oil Pipeline near Gary, IN (photo: M. Viveros)

The area is heavily influenced by large corporations such as BP and ArcelorMittal. These corporations bring along promises of jobs and community investments in order to win over the hearts of working class citizens. In exchange for that, these corporations have free rein to pollute these communities.

In 2014, BP was fined only $2,000 from the coast guard for 1,600 gallons of crude oil that spilled into Lake Michigan. It wasn’t until this year that BP agreed to pay the EPA $275,000 in civil penalties to resolve violations of the Clean Water and Air acts. One thing that has stuck with me since we visited the area is a site that contained a broken pipeline. This pipeline has been actively spilling oil into a ditch for four years now. If this is not a complete disregard for the environment and the surrounding community, then I don’t know what is.

The residents of this area have been failed multiple times. Failed by the corporations that have come in and polluted their community, and failed by the local and federal governments for not protecting the residents and holding the large corporations in the area accountable for their actions. Fortunately, the residents of this region have not let themselves be silenced by the injustices in their community. SETF has had many victories such as closing an incinerator at 117th and Stony Island and, most recently, forcing Koch and Beemsterboer to stop storing Petcoke at their south facilities. Residents of Marktown, a small picturesque town near the BP Refinery in Whiting, IN, have been fighting back to stop BP from demolishing their community, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As stated earlier, it is one thing to hear about these environmental injustices in the news; it is a whole different experience to actually go and see these injustices happening in person. Leaving the Southeast Chicago/Northwest Indiana Region, I was in shock at the things that I had experienced on the tour. The citizens residing in this region are honest, hardworking people just trying to make a living. They deserve just as much consideration and protective from environmental hazards as anybody else. It is disheartening to see the injustices that these people have to face on a daily basis; it is even more disheartening to realize that no-one is holding these polluting corporations accountable for their actions.

My intention behind writing this is not to upset or discourage anybody. Rather, I want you, as an individual, to realize that you have the power to make a difference. As a Sustainability Studies major at RU, a question I frequently get is “Why should I even bother?” I am a firm believer that even the smallest of change can make a major difference. It only takes one person to speak up and spark a movement.

Had it not been for a community coming together and speaking out, the incinerator at 117th and Stony Island might probably still be there. Had it not been for a concerned resident in Flint reaching out to Professor Marc Edwards to come out and do testing after her concerns over orange-tinted water coming out from the tap were not acknowledged by local officials, the citizens of Flint may still be dealing with the water crisis on their own. The residents of Southeast Chicago/ Northwestern Indiana might have to put up with a lot of obstacles, but from what I have seen, they are not letting their cries for change go unheard. Go out there and spark a movement!

Moses viveros-m-croppedViveros is a senior SUST major at Roosevelt University and the SUST Program’s Student Associate for 2016-17. As part of this work-study position, he is also serving as the assistant editor for the SUST at RU Blog this year.

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One Response to Planting the Seeds of Change: Reflections on a Tour of Southeast Chicago/Northwest Indiana

  1. martha ambrey says:

    Wonderfully written article but very sad. Informing people is the first step in bringing about change.

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