A changed community: The East Chicago lead crisis one year later | East Chicago Lead contamination

The Brickyard. Marktown. West Calumet.

These East Chicago neighborhoods have two things in common:

1. Vulnerable, low-income residents of color have been forced out over the last two decades by rampant pollution.

2. They all are featured stops on Thomas Frank’s “Toxic Tour.”

The environmental activist says the tour offers people the opportunity to view his adoptive hometown’s skyline for what it is: Home to one of the country’s most industrialized cities, as has been the case for the last century.  

“(Tradebe) moved in next door (to Brickyard). Very quickly, people got sick. Instead of trying to address the polluters, (BP) decided they’d buy out the neighborhood and tear it down,” Frank said.

“And then just three years ago, BP moved next to Marktown, a national historic district … and they, too, have chosen to tear down Marktown. BP is buying them out.”

Tradebe is a waste treatment storage and disposal plant at 4343 Kennedy Ave. in East Chicago. In the mid-1990s, when families were bought out and forced to leave the Brickyard neighborhood, the plant was known as Pollution Control Industries. 

Just a small fraction of the city’s 12 square miles is fit for families to live in, city and federal EPA administrative records show. The rest — estimated at about 80 percent — of the land is zoned for heavy industry and the largest taxpayers.

“We’ve been cannibalized by industry, and we’re contracting,” Frank said on a recent cloudy afternoon before jumping in his SUV with members of a regional social justice group in the back seat to embark on his “Toxic Tour.”

Frank, who lives in the Washington Park section of East Chicago, is a former urban planner and once-director of the Indiana Harbor Shipping Canal. He’s also no stranger to the environmental justice scene as a member of both the Southeast Environmental Task Force and the Chicago Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke.

These days, Frank said he fields more requests than ever from people — environmental groups, national news outlets, college students and residents included — to take the tour. Even EPA Region 5 Acting Administrator Robert Kaplan — who is overseeing cleanup of the USS Lead Superfund site — attended Frank’s tour last month.

“Prior to this West Calumet story breaking, we didn’t call it pollution. People saw the smoke and they called it jobs. They were really, up until that point, seeing smoke as meaning food on the table,”…

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