GARY, Ind. — Three of the nation’s largest, dirtiest steel mills sit on a roughly 20-mile strip along Lake Michigan. Each year, their stacks belch a cocktail of lead, hydrochloric acid and hundreds of tons of other toxins into skies over neighborhoods that are home to tens of thousands of people, many of them Black or Latino.
When they settle to earth, these pollutants can mix into dirt that is tracked into people’s homes or wash into waterways that feed the lake. And it has been that way for more than 100 years, since the first of the mills began smelting ore.
The heavy-industry heartland of Northwest Indiana ranks sixth in the nation for toxic releases per square mile, trailing only areas like the oil and gas hub of Houston. Earlier this year, owners of one mill agreed to pay a $3 million fine for a 2019 spill that dumped wastewater tainted with cyanide and ammonia into a Lake Michigan tributary. Three years earlier, a public housing complex of more than 1,100 people had to be evacuated virtually overnight after astronomical levels of lead turned up nearby.
Residents like La’Tonya Troutman have wondered for years about the other ways the buildup of toxins permeates people’s lives here.
She has questioned whether it’s linked to the death of her mentor, a young lawyer who developed cancer in her mid-30s; the lupus and diabetes her mother suffered, which made it hard for her to help care for Troutman’s four children while she pursued a college degree; and her teenage son’s run-ins with law enforcement.
“What’s happening environmentally, it impacts economics, it impacts health. … Environment impacts criminal justice,” said Troutman, who has lived almost her whole life in this corner of Indiana and works on environmental justice issues for the NAACP.
For decades, Washington and its environmental regulators have largely overlooked the struggles of communities like this one, where toxic pollution persists despite landmark laws like the 52-year-old Clean Air Act. But now, President Joe Biden’s administration is considering a radical change in strategy — one that residents such as Troutman hope will put people’s health over businesses’ bottom lines.
She’s still waiting to see whether the president’s promise to address the socioeconomic and racial dimensions of environmental degradation will become reality.
“We need, like, immediate right-now change,” Troutman said. Until that happens, “it’s politics as usual.”
‘It matters how you keep them safe’
Growing up, Troutman thought of the steel mills simply as where the best jobs were. Her friends with parents working there didn’t have to worry about their power being shut off in the middle of winter — unlike Troutman, who sometimes shivered in bed in her parka as she tried to fall asleep.
But by her mid-30s, she began to question the downside of that source of economic security.
Health care workers in Northwest Indiana see unusually high numbers of patients with breathing problems and heart conditions, and though no studies have conclusively linked the mills’ toxins to the general poor health of the community, the anecdotal evidence is abundant. In some families, it is uncommon to find a relative who has lived past 60. The average life expectancy here lags behind those of Indiana and the U.S. as a whole.
But in a conundrum that stands at the crux of the Biden administration’s pursuit of environmental justice, this inundation has for the most part been perfectly legal.
The mills and other plants operate under a system in which regulators typically issue individual environmental permits in isolation, without accounting for how the pollution from multiple mills, factories and waste accumulates in the air that residents breathe.
Activists have pushed for years for federal regulators to adopt a different approach — one centered on the term “cumulative impact.” Sometimes described as the holy grail of environmental justice, it aims to replace the smokestack-by-smokestack analysis with one that accounts for the whole of pollution’s effects on communities from an array of sources.
Under this long-debated strategy, regulators could reject a new steel mill, even one with state-of-the art cleanup technology, if a region was already overburdened by pollution. Or they could force factories in a pollution hot spot to make costly technology upgrades, even if they only incrementally reduce pollution.
Now, someone living in the White House professes to be open to that kind of seismic shift in regulatory thinking. Biden has offered himself as a champion of the environmental justice movement, which seeks to reverse the long-standing and disproportionate burden of pollution on communities of color and low-income residents.
Environmental justice advocates were elated during an October 2020 presidential debate when then-candidate Biden spoke to the dilemma facing communities whose residents often work for the very businesses polluting their neighborhoods. “It doesn’t matter what you’re paying them,” Biden said. “It matters how you keep them safe.”
Once in office, he salted diversity and social justice throughout his agenda. He tapped former North Carolina regulator Michael Regan as the first Black man to lead EPA and vowed that 40 percent of the benefits from climate and clean energy spending would go to overburdened and neglected communities.
But the “Justice40” initiative is unlikely to live up to its billing, in large part because congressional Democrats failed to pass the massive social and climate spending bill that would have delivered a jolt of new money. Only last month, almost a year and a half into Biden’s term, did EPA release a list of programs covered by the 40 percent pledge. The mechanics of tracking how the agency apportions the money are still being worked out.
EPA is ramping up civil rights enforcement in selected locales and taking other measures that could give affected communities a better idea of the hazards they face. But the release of a draft update to Clinton-era guidelines for cumulative impact assessment is running six months behind the original schedule, with no firm due date.
By Biden’s own test, what may ultimately matter most is his administration’s willingness to strengthen key pollution regulations. But that could conflict with Biden’s “Buy America” agenda, which aims to boost manufacturing and good-paying union jobs. More industrial output often means more pollution, and businesses argue that tighter environmental controls make it harder for U.S. factories to compete with foreign rivals.
While activists generally seem willing to give the administration time to make good on its promises, incremental steps “really aren’t felt on the ground,” said Melissa Miles, executive director of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance. “You can’t be too bold.”
Regulators, however, aren’t even sure they have the legal right to take different facilities’ combined effects into account when making permit decisions, or how they would write rules to make that happen. An earlier effort by EPA petered out almost two decades ago.
At a forum in March, Regan acknowledged the problem, and offered a cryptic formulation of his game plan.
“The Clean Air Act doesn’t give us explicit authority to look at cumulative impact, but we have the flexibility to look at cumulative impact,” the EPA chief said at the event, sponsored by the American Council on Renewable Energy. An agency spokesperson later declined to elaborate. Regan also stressed his work to knock down the bureaucratic walls among the agency bailiwicks responsible for air, water and Superfund regulations.
Advocates say an obvious place for the administration to show its commitment to environmental justice will come in its approach to a bedrock air toxics program that is critical to the fate of the most polluted communities, but which both Republican and Democratic presidencies have overlooked for two decades.
The program requires regular reviews to determine the effectiveness of the air toxics regulations governing steel mills, hazardous waste incinerators and other industrial facilities. As part of these reviews, EPA can mandate pollution control updates that substantially stanch releases of lead, mercury and other potent toxins into neighborhood skies.
This can make a big difference: For instance, after a 2015 update to hazardous pollutant standards for oil refineries, total industry releases of potentially deadly hydrogen cyanide dropped roughly one-third over the next five years, according to the latest numbers available from EPA.
But as of November, EPA was running late on roughly 60 percent of more than 160 reviews of standards for various industrial sectors, according to a recent report from the agency’s inspector general. Most of those overdue assessments hadn’t even started.
Because people of color and low-income populations are more likely to live near industrial plants or other pollution sources, the delays “may disproportionately impact communities with environmental justice concerns,” the IG report said. Acting EPA air chief Joe Goffman has since pledged to come up with a strategy for ending the chronic delays, but noted in a memo that implementation will hinge on a bigger budget from Congress.
Two years ago, Troutman’s NAACP chapter and other groups filed a federal suit seeking to force EPA to address the pollution from steel mills, and the agency has since agreed to at least plug some gaps in its existing emission limits. But the deadline for the agency’s final plan is October 2023, and it could be longer still before stricter standards take effect.
Poverty, ill health and pollution
As with many regions overburdened with pollution, the toxins aren’t the only challenge facing communities in Northwest Indiana. Children grow up amid the battery of harms that come with entrenched poverty. And Suzanne Chick sees them all.
She was born in East Chicago, the first of the industrial hubs of Lake County on the highway out of Chicago. The city is home to not just a massive steel mill but also a hazardous waste recycler and roughly a dozen other plants that add to dirtier air. Nearby is a sprawling BP oil refinery that late last year agreed to pay more than $500,000 in fines to settle alleged Clean Air Act violations.
Now a school social worker in East Chicago, Chick checks in each weekday morning with the handful of elementary school students who have made her roster for regularly being aggressive or disruptive in class.
Those kids may come to school exhausted after their night’s sleep was disrupted by a shooting down the block, she said, or by the tossing and turning of one of the four family members with whom they share a futon. Signs of substance abuse often surface in the home.
Still, she worries whether the chemicals billowing from nearby smokestacks play a role, too.
“I just wonder, how much of the aggression, the learning problems, the inability to concentrate that I see in my kids is related to the pollution,” she said. Federal regulations have let the mills keep running with essentially the same pollution controls mandated almost two decades ago — even as scientists have learned more about their pollutants’ dangers.
Lead, a potent neurotoxin that can stunt children’s brain development, is a particular worry. Emissions data are patchy, but the three steel mills release more than 35 tons of the heavy metal into the air each year, according to an analysis by the environmental group Earthjustice. That total is far higher than what EPA calculated; nowhere else in the country faces that rate of exposure, the group concluded.
When the lead particles fall on the ground, people may track them into their homes. Many of the houses here date back to the construction of the mills and the refinery over a century ago, so they still have lead paint and lead drinking water pipes. Testing has found tap water with alarmingly high levels of the toxin.
Then there’s the Superfund site.
For roughly 80 years, lead was smelted and refined at the USS Lead site in East Chicago, where neighborhoods, a public housing complex and an elementary school were later built. The West Calumet Housing Complex was home to more than 1,100 people, including 680 children, when soil tests showed lead levels more than 200 times EPA’s action level. Mayor Anthony Copeland ordered residents to leave immediately in July 2016. The elementary school was closed abruptly that summer, sending many of those kids temporarily to Chick’s school.
The revelations added to residents’ worries.
“There’s a lot of health issues in this area. It’s an exorbitant amount,” said Jodi Allen, a nurse practitioner who treats patients throughout Lake County.
She says she sees unusually high rates of breathing ailments, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, in patients who aren’t smokers. People also suffer from high rates of obesity, high blood pressure and childhood asthma. “Where do you work? And where do you live?” are among the first questions Allen asks new patients.
Of course, other factors could be at work. Many neighborhoods lack grocery stores that carry fresh produce; factory workers pull night shifts that run counter to their bodies’ natural rhythms and make them more prone to obesity; and the region has high rates of smoking.
Data shows the county lagging behind the health scores in both other parts of Indiana and the U.S. as a whole. Based on a three-year average, for example, 2018 life expectancy was 76.6 years, slightly under the state average and more than two years below the U.S. figure, according to an Indiana University demographer’s analyses.
Still, aside from a handful of narrow federal studies looking at the exposures at the West Calumet homes site, little research has been done on the effects of the soup of various toxic exposures that confront the region’s residents across their lifetimes. For example, nobody appears to have studied how much of the lead released from the region’s smokestacks falls on the region’s backyards, playgrounds and parks. While the risks of individual toxins like lead, manganese and benzene that stream from the steel mills and other industrial facilities are well established, research into the health effects of the combinations that assail communities is rare — not just in Indiana, but in similar frontline areas across the country.
“No one has been able to or wanted to study it. Do we even want to know?” asked Allen. She’s now part of a research team from area universities trying to change that. The group hopes to get money for regional air monitoring to get a real-time look at what is entering residents’ lungs. The team also wants to collect samples of hair and baby teeth from residents.
The information could help health care workers anticipate and treat ailments. And, advocates hope, it could drive state and federal regulators to crack down on the pollution.
‘No administration has done what’s needed’
Protecting children and adults from airborne toxins has vexed Congress and EPA since passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970.
Originally, regulators were supposed to tie industrial emission standards to the level of risk that a specific pollutant posed. But gauging that risk proved daunting; during the following two decades, EPA got the job done only for mercury, arsenic and five other substances.
In 1990, lawmakers switched tactics by creating a landmark set of amendments to the act. This measure deemed almost 190 chemicals, metals and other substances to be hazardous because of their links to cancer or other serious health problems. Rather than dither about the potential harm each substance posed, EPA was supposed to regulate major sources of those pollutants by gearing emission limits to the “maximum achievable” controls that businesses could install — and to conduct follow-up reviews after eight years to account for technological advances and leftover risks.
That framework has unquestionably proved more effective. From 1990 to 2017, releases of air toxics nationally plunged 74 percent, according to EPA. Still, they totaled 550 million pounds in 2020, with grim inequities in how the burden was spread around the country, according to data reported to the agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, which also keeps tabs on emissions of compounds like ammonia not officially deemed hazardous.
In Gary, a city more than three-quarters Black, U.S. Steel’s Gary Works and a few other plants in just one ZIP code spewed almost 342,000 pounds of air pollutants in 2020, the TRI figures show. That total, down more than 10 percent from five years earlier, still amounted to roughly 50 pounds for every man, woman and child in the surrounding area. Add in the land and water discharges from the steel plant and other nearby facilities, and Gary as a whole ranked as the nation’s 15th-most polluted city.
Nationally, however, a cascade of blown deadlines has dogged EPA’s handling of both the original framework for setting the air toxics standards and the follow-up reviews. Many of the challenges stemmed from the task’s “relatively low priority within the agency,” Government Accountability Office auditors wrote in a 2006 report. Little has since changed, clean air advocates say.
“No administration has done what’s needed,” said Emma Cheuse, an attorney for Earthjustice, which repeatedly sued EPA over the delays during the Obama administration. In an agency with more than 14,000 employees, fewer than 100 work at the EPA office mainly responsible for overseeing the air toxics standards. The office’s approximately $17 million budget last year was almost one-quarter lower than a decade ago, according to figures obtained through a records request.
That represents a lost opportunity to better protect human health and the environment. Thanks to the vagaries of timing, Earthjustice’s legal challenges that led to court-supervised deadlines left the work of reviewing dozens of standards to the regulation-hostile Trump administration, which usually chose the status quo over tighter pollution limits. Among those were the steel mill rules: After a review that ended nine years behind schedule, the agency concluded in 2020 that its nearly two-decades-old limits provided “an ample margin of safety to protect public health” and made only a handful of changes.
That review didn’t factor in the potential health harm from the myriad other pollution sources in Northwest Indiana. While environmental groups sought beefed-up pollution controls for the mills, which they said would bolster air quality at modest expense, agency staffers repeatedly deemed those options not “cost-effective.”
The Trump EPA predicted at one point that the cost of cutting releases of dioxin and other pollutants that are extremely dangerous, but emitted in small quantities, would be $188 trillion per ton — roughly nine times the total annual U.S. economic output. After Cheuse — commenting on the proposal on behalf of several other groups — derided the figure as “meaningless,” EPA quietly revised it downward by a factor of 1,000.
Besides the Gary Works, the trio of Northwest Indiana mills includes Indiana Harbor, in East Chicago, and Burns Harbor, further to the east in a neighboring county. Both were bought in 2020 by Ohio-based Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. That year, the three plants cumulatively reported toxic air emissions of almost 437 tons, or more than double the amount from the nation’s half-dozen other integrated steel mills combined, according to the TRI numbers.
The Earthjustice analysis flagged another potential pitfall: Those figures don’t fully reflect “fugitive” emissions of lead that escape through leaks and other pathways. According to the group, releases from those unregulated sources are more than twice the amounts going up the stacks of the three mills.
A Cleveland-Cliffs spokesperson said she could not comment on emissions data before the acquisition. But she and other officials stressed that the region complies with EPA’s ambient air quality standard for lead and said the company is taking other steps to curb releases.
A U.S. Steel representative declined to comment specifically because of the active litigation over the standards but alluded to the importance of taking the Gary Works’ large size into account when assessing emissions.
EPA is working to gather more information, according to a spokesperson.
Can Biden change it?
Now, Biden is aiming to show that his administration can do better. Goffman, EPA’s acting air chief, stressed that “dealing with toxic air pollution as a public health issue, as an [environmental justice] issue, is a priority.”
But Goffman also worked at the Obama-era EPA. In the interview, he sidestepped a question about why under his former boss — who hailed from the South Side of nearby Chicago — the agency failed to prioritize air toxics regulations, including those governing steel mills.
That seemingly perennial challenge is gaining renewed urgency in light of the Biden administration’s focus on fair treatment. Under Regan, EPA in January voiced support for a new environmental assessment of a planned plastics plant expansion in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” that will consider the potential cumulative effects of adding its emissions to those already permitted in the region. More broadly, a new strategic plan highlights the importance of better understanding cumulative effects and risks. Another draft report looks at research needs.
But at a March gathering of an agency advisory committee focused on the draft, an EPA staffer conceded it was “the first step in a very long-term process that we’ll be needing to do and build on.”
Congress — hopelessly deadlocked on most environmental issues — is unlikely to help. Two years ago, however, Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a widely noted law requiring the state’s environmental regulators to deny new air permit applications in communities considered already overburdened. But that law will have no immediate effect on existing industries, meaning any drop in pollution is likely to be gradual at best.
Increasingly, environmental justice advocates are beginning to think it’s inevitable that some neighborhoods will remain overburdened, even if EPA cracks down on industrial pollution. No matter how aggressively regulators pursue facilities in East Chicago, for instance, the sheer number of industrial sites could mean that toxic air emissions remain dangerous to nearby residents.
“I think that there will still be sacrifice zones, or hot spots, or however you want to say it,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, who led EPA’s environmental justice program during the Obama administration and now works at the National Wildlife Federation.
Advocates like Ali are pondering what must be done then. Should governments help foot the bill to relocate residents, the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency buys out homes subject to repeated flooding? (That program has raised its own justice concerns by favoring wealthy and white homeowners, a recent analysis by POLITICO’s E&E News showed.) And what health services or educational support should they offer to residents who might opt to stay, be it for family reasons or access to jobs?
“Those are going to be extremely difficult conversations,” Ali said.
The tension is not lost on Northwest Indiana residents, for whom steel mill jobs offer a path to stability. Though their workforces have shrunk dramatically in recent decades, the three plants still employ about 10,000 workers, according to figures from U.S. Steel and Cleveland-Cliffs.
Akeeshea Daniels’ oldest son has one of those jobs, working as a crane operator at one mill. Her 62-year-old mother holds the same job at another mill.
Daniels is proud of their work ethic, but the risks aren’t lost on her. Her mother is the first woman of her generation in the family to live past age 60; within the past decade, Daniels has lost four aunts who were born and raised in East Chicago to cancer and other ailments.
Still, Daniels chose to stay in the area after the mayor’s order forced her out of the apartment in the West Calumet homes that she had shared with her four sons. The youngest of those boys has struggled with ADHD and other learning disabilities that she believes are linked to the lead exposure.
“I have an 89-year-old grandmother that lives in Zone 2 of the Superfund site. She lives in the original house where I was born,” she said. Rather than move, Daniels opted to remain in the neighborhood, still within the Superfund site, in order to stay close to her family, banking on promises from the mayor that public housing would be rebuilt after the Superfund cleanup was completed.
Daniels voted for Biden, not just because of his promises on pollution cleanup, but also for law enforcement reform and the social safety net. And, as much as she hopes he can make a difference in the pollution, poverty and violence that shape her family’s world, what she first wants from him is simple.
“Our president, and our vice president, need to come and talk to some of us,” Daniels said. “They need to see what’s really going on here.”