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Great Lakes Article:

E. Chicago residents unload on toxic-dump plan
By Cathleen Falsani
Chicago Sun-Times
04/27/03

Even on a perfect spring afternoon, when a crisp breeze carries the scent of blossoms and mown grass, the acrid odor of benzene overpowers the air around East Chicago, Ind.

It's a part of life in this beleaguered steel town, 25 miles from Chicago, where local industries such as chemical recycling and coke refining put food on the table for many families.

While they may have come to accept the chemical smell, many East Chicago residents say they won't accept a plan to put a massive, open-air toxic waste dump the size of five Wrigley Fields just 800 yards from two local schools.

About 250 protesters marched down Indianapolis Boulevard, East Chicago's main drag, Saturday morning to show their opposition to a plan to store 4.6 million cubic yards of polluted sediment dredged from the bottom of nearby Indiana Harbor and Shipping Canal for the next 30 years.

"I've lived here all my life, and it's going to get worse if this comes here," said East Chicago resident Juan Brito, 32, whose 4-year-old son Tony toddled alongside as they marched from East Chicago Central High School to city hall.

The 131-acre "confined disposal facility" on Indianapolis Boulevard would be just north of the Lake George Canal on the outskirts of town. But it's also adjacent to the high school, West Side Junior High School, a fire station, a mental health facility and the public golf course.

Looking past the red scoreboard at the end of the high school's Pete Rucinski Football Field, the edge of the proposed landfill site is clearly visible.

The shipping canal on the former Energy Cooperative oil company site hasn't been dredged since 1972 and may be the most polluted site in the Great Lakes. Dumping from steel plants, oil refineries and heavy industry has clogged the canal, making passage difficult for barges and ships to pass unless they're carrying a light load, said Bill White, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Despite assurances from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that possible risks from the disposal facility are well within federal guidelines, many East Chicago residents are convinced the dump would place their health and their children's futures in jeopardy. Dredging is scheduled to begin in 2005. The containment site in East Chicago wouldn't be capped until it was filled, probably in 2035.

The dredging project has the support of East Chicago's longtime mayor, Robert Pastrick--whom some residents accuse of selling out the town--and U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.).

But at least one local lawmaker, state Rep. John Aguilera (D-East Chicago), has questioned how East Chicago was chosen for the dump.

Standing in front of city hall with a crowd of other protesters, Jose Tobias kept a nervous eye on his 3-year-old grandson, Alec. A local pediatrician had just finished telling the crowd some of the things neurodevelopmental toxins can do to children: Autism. Seizures. Asthma. Attention deficit disorder.

"There are a lot of chemicals going in there," said Tobias, a grandfather of eight who emigrated from Mexico to East Chicago 30 years ago. "It's going to affect us in the short or the long run. It's outrageous."

White said the health concerns are misguided. "If we didn't feel we could do this safely, we wouldn't do it," he said.

Like so many of his neighbors, Brito's life is intertwined with the companies that produced the toxic waste that will be dredged from the shipping canal. He has been unemployed since 2001, when the steel factory where he worked closed. Many in East Chicago, where the per capita income is about $17,000, are in the same boat.

Brito thinks East Chicago was chosen as the location for the waste site because its population is largely black, Hispanic and working-class. Eighty-five percent of the town's 33,000 residents are minorities.

"They think we're not going to say nothing, that we'll just take it," Brito said, as little Tony bit into a frozen tamarind-flavored paleta without taking his eyes off his father. "They wouldn't dare put it in Schererville or Merrillville, so they put it here."

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