American industry disproportionately affects the health of minority and low-income communities, and East Chicago, Ind. — known as the country’s “most industrialized municipality” during the Industrial Revolution — offers a view of environmental injustices emerging throughout the Rust Belt.
In July 2016, nearly 1,200 people in the West Calumet neighborhood of East Chicago learned their children’s blood carried levels of lead that tested as much as six times higher than the Center for Disease Control’s cutoff for lead poisoning.
In December, the Environmental Protection Agency announced some of the city’s drinking water also contains high levels of lead, prompting Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb to declare a disaster emergency for the Superfund site just southeast of America’s third-largest city.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as part of a legal settlement announced in November, advanced plans to help West Calumet’s public housing residents leave their homes. Many are struggling to find a place to live in the city of 29,000 people.
“We feel like we're just being thrown out,” Nayesa Walker said. Her 3-year-old daughter’s blood tested high for lead. There is no safe amount of lead exposure for children.
In a letter to residents, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland wrote, “your health and safety are my first priority.” Nearly 80 percent of East Chicago’s 11 square miles is zoned for heavy industry. Many renters and homeowners say they cannot trust the government for basic services.
Two miles north of Walker’s home lies Marktown, an East Chicago neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places. Built to resemble an English countryside village, the century-old workers’ community is vanishing. British Petroleum is buying and demolishing the homes that surround a massive oil refinery.
The refinery outside Marktown also pollutes the air and nearby Lake Michigan. Every year, BP's refinery spits out 2.2 million tons of petcoke, black dust that’s linked to higher rates of cancer and respiratory problems. After more than a century of industry, toxic levels of lead, arsenic and other pollutants contaminate water, soil and air.
President Donald Trump’s new administration wants to eliminate a federal rule that helps protect drinking water from industrial and commercial pollution. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form.”
With a proposed 31 percent reduction in funding to the EPA, several of the expected cuts — including its environmental justice program, which reduces the burden of pollution on low-income communities — will directly affect East Chicago. Lead cleanups, environmental protection enforcements and restoration projects are also expected to be cut back or abandoned.
As residents in East Chicago can attest, companies will not self-regulate for the health of the populace if laws don't hold them in check.
Yet, East Chicagoans are intensely proud of their community. They struggle, certainly, but also thrive and hope for a better future. Life endures within a system that profits at the expense of underrepresented people in disregarded spaces.
"How much money will replace 56 years' worth of memories?" life-long resident Kim Rodriguez asked. "I am rich in history here.”
After working in East Chicago for two and a half years, I am in a unique position to contrast the city’s ongoing health crisis with the depth and range of life in the city. I will go beyond creating only reactionary images to breaking news. Viewers develop empathy by seeing themselves in the lives of others. I will create images that show how life flourishes in spite of the pollution that engulfs it.
The ongoing lead crisis in Flint, Michigan confronted our nation with the lack of health advocacy among poor Americans, most notably in communities of color.
If the press doesn’t hold the government accountable by focusing on these ongoing issues, more of our fellow citizens will be poisoned by the air they breathe, the water they drink and the ground where their children play.
Documenting the challenges facing East Chicago will create a record of how our industrial history affects individuals. In an era of diminishing resources in journalism, organizations like Visura make it possible to tell these important stories.