E. Chicago residents unload on
By Cathleen Falsani
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,
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
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
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
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
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
"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."