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Lecture criticizes Indiana environment

Matt Smedberg | Thursday, September 25, 2003

Betty Balanoff addressed the topic of “Environmental Justice in Northern Indiana” Wednesday in the Hesburgh Center auditorium as part of a Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies lectures series entitled “Environmental Justice: Grassroots Voices.

Balanoff is a retired historian who has organized efforts to increase responsibility by industrial sites in the industry-heavy South Shore area. Her organization, the Coalition for a Clean Environment (CCE), is currently engaged in work with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers, who are under contract to dredge the highly polluted Shipping Canal and manage the Confined Disposal Facility (CDF), both in East Chicago, Ind.

The CCE aims to ensure that projects are planned and carried out with regard to good public health and sound policy for the future.

Balanoff said that four major industrial cities – Gary, East Chicago, Hammond and Whiting – span most of the pollution problem of northern Indiana. Each has its own particular challenges: Gary, for example, has a minority population of 95 percent which is suffering under the sharp decline in steel production, a historic staple of the Gary economy. Whiting, alternatively, is dominated by the BP-Amoco refinery. It has remained in better economic shape regarding pollution problems, which are primarily petroleum-related, as opposed to airborne toxins and sludge-dumping.

Much of the campaigning done by the CCE and similar groups centers around the human toll of carelessness and corner-cutting when toxic chemicals are involved.

Balanoff recounted her story of turning into a medical researcher when fighting to block the conversion of a sulphuric acid recycling plant within a few blocks of large numbers of low-income housing units into an incincerator for general toxic waste.

She knew that cancer-reporting methods were woefully inadequate in her area, and so she and her task force gathered data on cancer incidence in the population immediately surrounding the plant, in the end demonstrating an incidence of cancer more than three times the normal rate.

She also mentioned instances of prohibitively rare forms of cancer striking repeatedly in areas exposed to certain toxins; multiple cases of a form of juvenile brain cancer which has an incidence of only a few in the United States every year were reported subsequent to abuses by a chemical production plant.

Balanoff stressed the need for trained scientists to be involved in such “urban environmentalist” efforts.

She emphasized that “if the people who live in these areas, who depend upon this industry for their livelihood, are not to be destroyed by the waste which is being produced, it is imperative that we find safe and useful ways to both protect them and the industries themselves.”

She called on engineers to develop safer equipment for hazardous purposes, on chemists to find ways to better monitor plant emissions, and on lawyers to help defend the workers and citizens often pitted against closely linked businesses and governments.