by Annie Snider and Sean Reilly
Three of the nation’slargest, dirtiest steel millssit on a roughly 20-mile strip along Lake Michigan. Each year, their stacks belch a cocktail of lead, hydrochloric acid and hundreds of tons of other toxins into skies over neighborhoods that are home to tens of thousands of people, many of them Black or Latino.
When they settle to earth, these pollutants canmix into dirt that is tracked into people’s homes orwash into waterways that feed the lake. And it has been that way for more than 100 years, since the first of the mills began smelting ore.
The heavy-industry heartland of Northwest Indiana ranks sixth in the nation for toxic releases per square mile, trailing only areas like the oil and gas hub of Houston. Earlier this year, owners of one mill agreed to pay a $3 million fine for a 2019 spill that dumped wastewater tainted with cyanide and ammonia into a Lake Michigan tributary. Three years earlier, a public housing complex of more than 1,100 people had to be evacuated virtually overnight after astronomical levels of lead turned up nearby.
Residents like La’Tonya Troutman have wondered for years about the other ways the buildup of toxins permeates people’s lives here.
She has questioned whether it’s linked to the death of her mentor, a young lawyer who developed cancer in her mid-30s; the lupus and diabetes her mother suffered, which made it hard for her to help care for Troutman’s four children while she pursued a college degree; and her teenage son’s run-ins with law enforcement.
“What’s happening environmentally, it impacts economics, it impacts health. … Environment impacts criminal justice,” said Troutman, who has lived almost her whole life in this corner of Indiana and works on environmental justice issues for the NAACP.
For decades, Washington and its environmental regulators have largely overlooked the struggles of communities like this one, where toxic pollution persists despite landmark laws like the 52-year-old Clean Air Act. But now, President Joe Biden’s administration is considering a radical change in strategy — one that residents such as Troutman hope will put people’s health over businesses’ bottom lines.
She’s still waiting to see whether the president’s promise to address the socioeconomic and racial dimensions of environmental degradation will become reality.
“We need, like, immediate right-now change,” Troutman said. Until that happens, “it’s politics as usual.”
‘It matters how you keep them safe’
Growing up, Troutman thought of the steel mills simply as where the best jobs were. Her friends with parents working there didn’t have to worry about their power being shut off in the middle of winter — unlike Troutman, who sometimes shivered in bed in her parka as she tried to fall asleep.
But by her mid-30s, she began to question the downside of that source of economic security.
Health care workers in Northwest Indiana see unusually high numbers of patients with breathing problems and heart conditions, and though no studies have conclusively linked the mills’ toxins to the general poor health of the community, the anecdotal evidence is abundant. In some families, it is uncommon to find a relative who has lived past 60. The average life expectancy here lags behind those of Indiana and the U.S. as a whole.
But in a conundrum that stands at the crux of the Biden administration’s pursuit of environmental justice, this inundation has for the most part beenperfectly legal.
The mills and other plants operate under a systemin which regulators typically issue individual environmental permits in isolation, withoutaccounting for how thepollution from multiple mills, factories and waste accumulates in the air that residents breathe.
Activists have pushed for years for federal regulators toadopt a different approach — one centered on the term “cumulative impact.” Sometimes described as the holy grail of environmental justice, it aims to replace the smokestack-by-smokestackanalysis with one that accounts for the whole of pollution’s effects on communities from an array of sources.
Under this long-debated strategy, regulators could reject a new steel mill, even one with state-of-the art cleanup technology, if a region was already overburdened by pollution. Or they could force factories in a pollution hot spot to make costly technology upgrades, even if they only incrementally reduce pollution.
Now, someone living in the White Houseprofesses to be open to that kind of seismic shift in regulatory thinking. Biden has offered himself as a champion of the environmental justice movement, which seeks to reverse the long-standing and disproportionate burden of pollution on communities of color and low-income residents.
Environmental justice advocates were elated during an October 2020 presidential debate when then-candidateBiden spoke to the dilemma facing communities whose residents often work for the very businesses polluting their neighborhoods. “It doesn’t matter what you’re paying them,” Biden said. “It matters how you keep them safe.”
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