On Tuesday, April 11, a chemical spill was discovered at the U.S. Steel plant in Portage, Indiana, twenty miles down the coast of Lake Michigan from Chicago. A pipe failure caused the chemical to spill into the Burns Waterway, which feeds into Lake Michigan, at a distance of one hundred yards from the shore. Several beaches along the Indiana shore were closed, and officials warned South Side residents to avoid the lakeshore before tests could occur. While testing by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Chicago Department of Water Management later revealed that chemical levels in Lake Michigan’s waters were well below federal safety standards, the spill elicited a strong reaction from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who criticized U.S. Steel for its “careless conduct.”
The chemical in question was hexavalent chromium, a carcinogenic compound present in a variety of industrial products. It is the same substance that, as the subject of the 2000 biographical film Erin Brockovich, drew public attention to the power of consumer advocacy in the face of corporate interests. Twenty-one years after the titular activist in the film settled her famous lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Energy, hexavalent chromium has once again captured public attention: this time, as an illustrative example of the threats posed to the Great Lakes Basin by pollution, deregulation, and budget cuts in the age of Donald Trump.
Yet the proposed Trump budget is only the latest in a series of threats to the ecology of southern Lake Michigan—for years activists have been looking for creative solutions to contain the damage industrial development has caused, and continues to cause, to the ecosystem. Rachel Havrelock, a professor of English and Jewish Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has become an advocate for ethical water management in the Great Lakes region. A think tank she founded in 2014, the Freshwater Lab, has hosted working groups and conferences in Chicago on how to govern the Great Lakes and Lake Michigan in particular, featuring input from activists, local mayors, and experts in the field.
“We really see the relationship between the communities and the water as central to the transformation of post-industrial sites,” Havrelock says. “There is a tremendous amount of potential and good that proximity to clean water can provide for the basin.”
However, the Trump administration has proposed deep cuts to both the federal EPA and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for the 2018 budget, aiming to reduce funding for the EPA by thirty-one percent of its current budget and to terminate the latter program entirely. “Basically the funding cuts, as they’re threatened to occur, would be slashing the regulatory oversight of the EPA,” said Havrelock. Cuts to the restoration initiative would decimate the clean water rule in the area, she added. Chicago PBS affiliate WTTW has reported that one of the primary ways this would manifest locally would be in reduced cleanup efforts in waterways leading into Lake Michigan—including the Chicago and Calumet Rivers, central waterways in the city’s South and Southwest Sides.
Because of the size and spread of the Great Lakes across several states, the federal EPA has played a central role in coordinating efforts between local EPA branches and other environmental oversight organizations. Bruce Rowe, National Park Service (NPS) public information officer at the Indiana Dunes, says the hexavalent chromium spill is a good example of how the NPS relies on the federal EPA for support.
“Their [the federal EPA’s] work was invaluable in ensuring that the National Park Service was getting the information we needed to protect our visitors and park resources. Based on this, we decided to close three of our beaches until we determined how far the spill had spread,” Rowe said. “I can also say that we at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore view the EPA as a critical partner in our work to protect both the health of our visitors and of our park’s resources.” Kim Biggs, the Illinois EPA’s public information officer, cited a similar reliance on the federal agency for containing and evaluating the spill’s impact.
Biggs stressed that although the spill occurred in Indiana, the local EPA was ready to confront potential threats to Illinois’s waterways. “Illinois EPA’s primary focus has been on the protection of the water systems served by Lake Michigan.” But she also said that although the Illinois EPA coordinates with agencies of all sizes, from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency to the City of Chicago, it is reliant on the federal EPA’s central authority.
While Biggs and Rowe declined to speculate on the effects of the Trump administration’s cuts, Havrelock says that the reduced budget would have broad repercussions for the entire basin. “If you’re looking for the worst-case scenario, look no further than to Indiana’s coastline.”
The U.S. Steel spill is nothing out of the ordinary along Indiana’s lakeshore if you ask Thomas Frank, an environmental activist living in East Chicago, Indiana, just a few miles across the state border. “This is business as usual,” he said of the spill. “The main thing that we’ve faced here has been permitted—they’ve been allowed to do this to the environment. That has caused enormous damage.”
Frank, who co-founded local organization the Community Strategy Group in East Chicago and sits on the board of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, a climate activism organization in Southeast Chicagoland, has seen the effects of Indiana’s environmental policies firsthand. “I was the director of the Indiana Shipping Canal, which at the time and for most of the twentieth century was considered the most polluted body of water in the country,” Frank recounted. “I got a really blunt lesson on environmental contamination, the legacy of the last hundred years of industrialization here, and the effects that were kind of left here in the community.”
Frank explained that the industrial corridor that stretches from the Indiana lakeshore into the South Side of Chicago is one of the oldest and largest in the country. However, while Chicago began to deindustrialize and transition to an information economy decades ago, the Indiana side of Chicagoland took a different path.
“On the Indiana side, we are reindustrializing,” said Frank, “and what we’ve seen is a loosening of the environmental regimes here in Indiana, providing favorable conditions for industry to operate here.”
Havrelock worries that the slashed EPA and restoration initiative funding—which provided $125 million in restoration funding to Indiana and $226 million to Illinois between 2010 and 2016—would reproduce the hands-off policies in Indiana across the entire Lake Michigan region.
“I would predict that if the federal government had its way, we’d see greater pollution and less regulation in the poorest areas of the Great Lakes,” she said. “Corporations would be allowed to dump more, there’d be less testing, less regulation, less money for scientific research, and when disasters happen, we would be missing the money to help those in need.”
Without effective federal standards and regulations in place, areas like the South Side of Chicago that have similar industrial legacies as Northwest Indiana and few political resources would be hit especially hard by the Trump administration’s cuts.
“We do know that pulling the funding out of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative would hugely impact this region because one of the issues it has addressed is the legacy of industrialization,” Frank said. He explained that environmental degradation in this region has its roots in the long history of manufacturing in Chicagoland, and that many of the water and land use issues here are direct results of this legacy.
Frank said lead contamination serves as a particularly salient example of how industrial history continues to affect the area, and how giants like BP get away with shirking environmental regulations. He recalled the case of the West Calumet housing project in East Chicago, which was built on top of a lead refinery. Referencing federal standards for levels of lead in water, “400 parts per million triggers a clean up, 1,200 parts per million of lead in the soil triggers an emergency action,” Frank said. “But what they [environmental inspectors] found in West Calumet in 2014 was [up to] 91,000 parts per million, and people had been living there for forty years. BP bought the liabilities afterward.”
While residents were evacuated with the help of the EPA, the 2014 consent decree allowed DuPont and Atlantic Richfield, an American petroleum company acquired by BP in 2000, to pay $26 million—enough to finance the cleanup of two of the three affected zones, but not enough to cover health or moving expenses incurred by residents. (A group of residents would later file a class-action lawsuit against the two companies.) In the same year that the consent decree was approved, BP was also found responsible for a crude oil spill directly into Lake Michigan.
Flare-ups like the hexavalent chromium spill in April and the 2014 crude oil spill are merely extremes of an already broken system. The very flow of the Grand Calumet River, which is a part of a network of channels along the Indiana-Illinois border, is largely composed of factory waste. “The flow of that river is due to industry discharges, and that’s about ten to eleven billion gallons annually of industrial waste and sewage that is discharged into that and goes out to Lake Michigan,” Frank said. There is little being done to address the everyday realities along the lakeshore, he continued. “In a community like this, there are huge impairments and very little commitment to really solve these problems. These kinds of things happen to the most vulnerable populations. When you allow polluters to pollute, it affects their whole socioeconomic and environmental livelihoods. It affects everything.”
The difficult situation that Frank describes is one that is overseen by an EPA that is already struggling to keep up, even before the cuts the Trump administration is promising. Without the coordinating capabilities of the federal EPA, a new paradigm may have to emerge to manage the waters of the Great Lakes.
“We would then have to look to our states and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, especially the division that handles the Illinois lakefronts,” said Havrelock, mapping out ways Illinois could avoid Indiana’s fate. “There are state agencies that everyone drinking [from] Lake Michigan would have to appeal to quick to not be poisoned.”
Havrelock speculates that states may look across the Great Lakes to Canada as a moderating force in the fight to keep the lake basin water clean and drinkable. “Many of us are hopeful of looking to Canada to set clean water standards should the Trump administration keep [cutting regulations and funds] at the national level,” she said. “We’ve always looked to this as a really positive progressive relationship for studying and managing and governing the Great Lakes, but now we are turning to the Canadians all the more.”
There is already resistance to this sea-change in policy at the local level—many Republican state governors in the Great Lakes Basin have voiced unusually loud opposition to Trump’s cuts, suggesting a bipartisan eagerness at the regional level to preserve federal environmental regulations.
Havrelock said that even if the cuts do go through, she remains hopeful that states will pursue a regional solution to contain pollution and contamination. “The best case scenario is that we come up with our own Great Lakes body that determines how the water is used and how it is contaminated and that there be some kind of long-term plan that is in the best economic, public health, and social interests of the Great Lakes basin as a whole.”
The Trump administration sent its 2018 budget to Congress for review on May 23. As promised, the budget includes broad cuts to the EPA, and the elimination of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and other associated projects. The budget Congress eventually passes will likely be very different from the one the Trump administration has proposed, but Frank maintains that even if the EPA scrapes by this year, there is still much work to be done to protect Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes.
“When we pollute the land, we’re now realizing that we’re impacting human life in the ecosystem,” he said. “We are forcing the polluter to pay for only one of its impacts, and even then, we aren’t fully dealing with it. Right now it’s like throwing a shovel of soil over it and say they’re done. What we really need to be focused on is environmental justice.”
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