January, 2001
Citizens' Report on Brownfields
The Center for Public Environmental Oversight & the Pacific Studies Center Volume III, Number 1

October 28, 2000
Lenny Siegel, CPEO
(January, 2001)

On October 28, 2000, CPEO led a Community Impact Statement (CIS) exercise in Lake County, Indiana. Based upon that meeting, this report describes community members' views of environmental conditions in their areas, and it also draws lessons on the utility of the Community Impact Statement concept.


The October, 2000 Community Impact Statement exercise in Lake County, Indiana, demonstrated once again that "asking the community" adds value to the analysis of environmental risk for brownfields redevelopment, facility siting, and the allocation of public resources. In this case, approximately 20 activists and other community members from northern Lake County described a series of environmental problems. In general their evaluations were consistent with data available from official sources, but their perspective likely would lead to different environmental and redevelopment policies. Since the purpose of this exercise was to document community concerns, not all the assertions made by participants have been verified.

Northern Lake County consists of four industrial cities Gary, Hammond, East Chicago, and Whiting with a population of about 240 thousand people, about half the county. For decades it has been home to steel mills, petrochemical plants, and other heavy industry. The area abuts the southern shore of Lake Michigan, and the Grand Calumet River runs through it.


Participants identified air pollution as a major issue in their area. The area is a non-attainment area under the Clean Air Act, and particulates from U.S. Steel's huge Gary complex are often visible on surfaces nearby. Participants blame air pollution for what they consider high rates of cancer, childhood asthma, and other ailments. Industry emits pollutants around the clock, seven days a week, but its releases appear to be greatest on nights and weekends.

In addition to the standard sources of air pollution heavy industry and automobile traffic participants highlighted the heavy truck traffic transversing the area. Because of the Chicago area's role as a national crossroads, a large number of trucks pass through these communities, contributing to environmental and social degradation. Trucks emit diesel air pollution. They are noisy at all hours. They make driving the highways more difficult. One participant even suggested that the truck traffic feeds "unwholesome" businesses that cater to truckers. That is, there is a holistic concern about the role of their communities as a national heavy truck route.

Concerns about truck traffic are compounded by the fact that many trucks are just passing through. Other than their purchases at local truck stops, they contribute little to the local economy. Yet they help to perpetuate the negative image of northern Lake County.

Truck traffic is such a major concern that residents may even oppose economically beneficial brownfields redevelopment if it is likely to generate more truck traffic.

Some of the participants noted that a proposal to build a parallel highway in more affluent, whiter southern Lake County contains a likely promise to prohibit heavy truck traffic. A more environmentally just approach, they felt, would be to construct an alternate route designed to divert heavy trucks from their current urban routes.

The impacts of truck and auto traffic could be alleviated through a variety of measures, including car pooling, alternative truck routes, green diesel and alternative fuel technologies. The U.S. Department of Transportation's Environmental Justice Policy could be used to keep through traffic out of people of color and other poor neighborhoods.


There is a great deal of information available about the area's six federal NPL sites, but those sites appear to be a relatively minor concern to the community. This appears to be because 1) contamination has already occurred, 2) responses are underway, and 3) only a small number of people have historically relied upon groundwater supplies. There is concern, however, that the migration of contaminants into Lake Michigan will damage the surface water that serves as the local water supply.

Brownfields, on the other hand are endemic, although it's hard to distinguish brownfields from other abandoned sites in the area. Such properties not only represent a health concern. They are a constant reminder of the shortage of good jobs, and an apparent invitation to businesses with poor environmental records and/or poor corporate citizenship. One reason participants indicated concern about brownfields is that so little is known about the level of contamination present at these sites.

Like many other older waterfront communities, Gary appears poised to transform its western coastline from a purely industrial zone with contaminated beaches to an area that takes advantage of its natural beauty-moving forward with residential and recreational uses. There is a project underway that will demolish a former cement plant on the shore of Lake Michigan and redevelop it into a multi-purpose complex including entertainment and housing.

In market terms, this seems to make sense. With the globalization of heavy manufacturing, it's unlikely that Gary will ever rebuild its heavy industry. Even remaining employers, such as U.S. Steel, are a shell of their former selves. Yet the Chicago metropolitan area as a whole is doing fairly well, and the southern lake shore appears to be a desirable place for a bedroom community-if it's cleaned up.

Considering the housing needs of the Chicago region, as it relates to the southern shore of Lake Michigan, Gary found itself with the opportunity for such development on its eastern beach front. However, participants in the exercise opposed such a development (as presented in a prior proposal) because it would have created a gated community with no public access to that part of the beach and would have served a population wealthier than those currently in the area. It was viewed as a development that the people would pay for yet not be able to afford. In addition, nearby homeowners were concerned about being bought out and property taxes escalating beyond what they could afford to pay.

Still, the participants appeared to be receptive to potential new uses, and my guess is that they wouldn't oppose a development that served a socioeconomic mix of people. But they felt that the current residents, who have endured Gary's ups and downs, should benefit as well as newcomers. They strongly opposed government assistance for the proposed gated brownfields project. Like people elsewhere, they felt that Brownfields subsidies shouldn't just go to projects simply because they clean up, landscape, and generate economic activity. Public sector help, either in the form of financial subsidies or regulatory assistance, should be targeted to projects that benefit the residents and businesses who have suffered the consequences of brownfields. They also believed that the government has a responsibility to make sure that such assistance goes to those communities with limited revenues and resources rather than those that already have the financial capacity that the program offers.


Participants identified several corporate polluters in the area, but opposition to big companies did not appear to be the centerpiece of their attitudes. Still, particularly in Gary, as participants considered a succession of environmental problems, U.S. Steel was clearly the 800-pound gorilla. U.S. Steel is by far the largest source of air toxic releases in the County. Historically it has released contaminants into the Grand Calumet River, and now, over the objection of some of the participants, it is seeking approval for a landfill (corrective action management unit, or CAMU) reportedly designed to contain contaminated dredge spoils. They also charge that it's being designed to accept twice as much material as planned to be dredged.

Historically the largest employer in Lake County, U.S. Steel-Gary Works now only employs about 6,800 workers, a mere fraction of what it employed in its heyday. These are good jobs, but participants said that only a small fraction of its employees are from Gary. They charged the company with job blackmail, in which it uses the threat of additional job losses to counter proposals to subject it to more stringent environmental regulations.


Contaminated sediment in the Grand Calumet River is one of the area's major environmental problems. Most of the water in the River originates as municipal or industrial effluent. It impacts fish caught by local subsistence fishers, and in the long run it further threatens the condition of Lake Michigan. The Army Corps of Engineers is leading a planned effort to dredge the river, but some of the participants felt that there was not a sufficient commitment to go deep enough. The proposed dredging is being designed to keep the ship channel open and reduce the release of contaminants into the lake, but the Corps plans to remove only 38% of the contaminated sediment. Two participants spoke favorably of a phytoremediation project, in which cattails have been planted along the river and are regularly harvested to remove pollutants.

The proposed CAMU at U.S. Steel plus a proposed Confined Disposal Facility in East Chicago, also to contain dredge spoils, are a major concern. Both are located in residential areas and in close proximity to schools. No one, said some of the participants, has assessed the impact these projects will have on children's health, overall health concerns such as cancer and liver disease, property values, and outdoor activities such as gardening. They consider the actions of U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to be discriminatory, and the Environmental Justice Executive Order (#12898) doesn't appear to help.


Participants highlighted another water quality problem. According to some of the participants, U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have stated that they are not responsible for water outside the levees. They said that the filling in of wetlands and the construction of flood control features, such as eight retention ponds, designed to protect other areas were causing sewer overflow and flooding in the poorer areas of Gary. Gardens, basements, and streets are experiencing flooding not generally experienced before. Residents are worried about exposure to both toxic chemicals and sewage from the flooding.


A presenter for Indiana University Northwest described its program to promote the lead-screening of children in old houses. Over half the housing stock in the area may have leadbased paint. The program, just getting underway, plans to focus on lead exposures from lead household paint. He was unaware that the county is or was home to eight lead smelters. But he was receptive to the suggestion, from another participant, that lead screening criteria should look at sources besides household paint.


Though a number of the people at the exercise were white, most seemed to associate the environ-mental condition of their communities with racism, because of the predominance of people of color. The people in predominantly white south county are proposing to keep trucks off their highways. They stopped a municipal waste landfill in their areas. They were protected by flood control. The poorer areas still have combined sewers-that is, sewage pipes joined with storm drains-causing sewage overflows during heavy storms.

The predominantly African-American (and somewhat Latino) population of the north county industrial belt suffers a combination of environmental threats that have adversely impacted the overall environmental health and quality of the region. Though many participants remain dedicated activists, they expressed frustration that it was difficult to mobilize their neighbors or influence officials. They are caught in a vicious cycle of disempowerment.


The northern Lake County CIS exercise successfully brought forward key concerns from participating members of the community. Activist residents clearly are experts, so the CIS concept is generally valid. Once again, however, the exercise pointed out opportunities for improving the CIS tool.

On the positive side, the collection of participants was informed and diverse. Gary Brownfields coordinator Mary Mulligan personally recruited participants. Most were knowledgeable about at least some of the environmental issues on the table. They were more than willing to talk. They were racially, occupationally, and (within the north county area) geographically diverse. This is probably the number one reason why the exercise was successful.

Also, the round-the-room introductions at the start of the meeting proved a valuable method of identifying issues of concern. This probably worked particularly well because the participants included activists from different parts of the area.There is a caveat: The participants were invited because they tend to represent activist constituencies. There was no pretense that they were necessarily representative, politically, of their communities as a whole.

On the other hand, the morning presentations and associated discussions "went over," limiting the time for the CIS exercise. The facilitator (CPEO director Lenny Siegel) had to rush through the evaluation and make spot judgments that might have been left to the group had the pace been more leisurely. Furthermore, though some of the participants-including the facilitator came armed with data, it would have been helpful to have that information displayed for the entire group.

More seriously, the sequenced review of attributes or criteria, as laid out in CPEO's CIS workplan, didn't work very well. Participants were not familiar with the categories. While training might have helped, the criteria depended somewhat on them fitting their world view to that of the facilitator. Furthermore, for each of the problems discussed, some of the attributes were not applicable.

For these reasons, for future exercises CPEO is likely to abandon the worksheet and combine the questions into a narrative. In that form, the questions may help shape the discussion, but participants won't be forced to couch their statements in that form. And the facilitator won't be tasked with so many onthe-spot decisions to skip issues or to interpret local input.


In the first file-by-file review (as far as we know) of any state brownfields program, the Green Environmental Coalition has called Ohio's Voluntary Action Program (VAP) a failure. The January, 2001 report, "The State of Ohio's Voluntary Action Program: Findings and Recommendations," may be downloaded from the Worldwide Web at http://www.greenlink.org/brownfields/ findings/index.html.

Among its conclusions, the Coalition found

    The current VAP does not meet US EPA requirements for brownfields cleanup programs in the areas of government oversight, public participation, and enforcement.
    Environmental justice and public health were not the focus in cleanup efforts. The focus of the VAP property owners, lenders and/or developers was economic redevelopment and job creation, rather than protecting human health and the environment.
    Some sites receiving financial incentives to participate in the VAP failed to cleanup their sites.
    The current VAP process did not address offsite contamination concerns.
Coalition recommendations included:
    Transform the VAP into a US EPA-approved brownfields cleanup program. Address US EPA public participation, government oversight, and enforcement requirements for brownfields cleanup programs.
    Provide financial incentives solely to communities with environmental justice concerns.
    Address offsite contamination, as required by Ohio's Revised Code.
    Increase Ohio EPA financial and personnel resources for the VAP.
    Eliminate institutional and engineering controls as acceptable cleanup activities.