By: Olivia Frawley


Residents of America’s urban areas are no strangers to environmental degradation due to concentrated industrialization and the failures of current environmental legislation. Due to many factors including under-representation, economic recession, discriminatory land use practices, and lack of access to adequate education, America’s urban poor and minority neighborhoods experience the greatest impact of this industrial multiple point-source pollution. Kim Ferraro, Julie Peller, HEC assessment of EJ needs in northern Lake County communities, Hoosier Environmental Council, (2014) The portion of these communities that border major water sources face disproportionate risks of restricted access to clean water due to industrial dumping and runoff. One such community that has spent the last 50 years battling this perplexing conundrum is Gary Indiana, a large city in North-Eastern Indiana that harbors the largest steel mill in the United States. Ishak, N.  From ‘magic city’ to ‘murder capital’: 33 haunting photos of Gary, Indiana. (2019)

In order to adequately propose an action plan to combat the environmental justice issues experienced in the area, it is important to understand the history of the industrialization of Gary and its foundational reliance on steel, and the reasoning behind and failures of current environmental laws that regulate industry in the area. When analyzing these factors, it becomes clear that the key to combating the extensive environmental injustices being experienced in Gary is in grassroots level community organization and activism.

Foundational Inequalities: Development of Gary

By the 1920’s, Gary’s success in steel had dubbed it nationally as, “The Magic City,” due to the job opportunity- with the area’s largest mill, ‘Gary Works’, boasting more than 16,000 employees, most being white European immigrants. Niel Betten. Raymond Mohl. “The Evolution of Racism in an Industrial City, 1906-1940: A Case Study of Gary, Indiana” The University of Chicago Press Journals. (1974) Simultaneously, it had developed a dangerously complete economic reliance on the steel industry- one that became apparent in the early 1970’s when America began to rely on automated machinery and foreign steel manufacturers.

            The city of Gary was built not only on steel, but on a deeply rooted history of racial segregation. Many African Americans migrated to Gary after the first world war from the southern states in order to escape Jim Crow laws. Id.  Here, while integrated physically in factories with white European immigrants, African Americans faced marginalization and social isolation. Betten, Mohl, at 765. Upon the 1970s collapse of reliance on American steel, many of the white residents of Gary left, and many of the African American residents, while not welcome to anyway, could not afford to follow. This movement, known as “white flight,” was crucial in laying the foundation for the deep environmental justice problems faced in the city today. Id. at 51.

Gary Today     

 More than 30% of the population of Gary lives under the poverty line, or has an annual individual income of less than $12,760$. Id. US Steel Corporation’s “Gary Works” is the still largest operating steel mill in the United States and is the largest employer in the city. Gary Works has been continuously releasing liquid waste into Lake Michigan and its tributaries since World War 2. Even restricted under today’s environmental regulations and permits, industries in the area including Gary Works reported discharging “more than 2 million pounds of cancer-causing toxicants.” Id. at 5.

The surface water source for Gary’s drinking water comes entirely from Lake Michigan. American Water Works. Annual Water Quality Reports. Northwest Indiana Operations (2021) The industrial dumping and runoff of pollutants over the last century has created dangerous and toxic drinking water conditions for Gary’s residents. Some of the most concerning pollutants disposed of by the steel industry include Ammonia-nitrogen, phenol, cyanide.  Patty Welti. ‘Rusty Colored’ discharge from US Steel shuts down beaches at Indiana Dunes National Park. WTTW News. (2021) Residents are constantly reminded of the threat of these pollutants through the adverse health impacts they experience. In a poll of Gary residents, 33% reported throat and eye irritation, and almost 40% reported frequent headaches. Kim Ferraro, Julie Peller, HEC assessment of EJ needs in northern Lake County communities, Hoosier Environmental Council, (2014)  More than half of the polled residents admitted that they believed these health impacts to be directly related to their environment. Id. at 9.

Perpetuating Environmental Injustice: Causes

            The US Environmental Protection Agency currently defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental law, regulation, and policies.” Id. at 18. The EPA has further defined “fair treatment,” as the idea that “no groups of people shall bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental, and commercial operations or policies,” an idea that is otherwise referred to as “distributive justice.” Id. at 19.

While there are many reasons that marginalized communities experience environmental injustice, one of the most crucial speaks to the second point in the EPA’s definition, “meaningful involvement.” Many marginalized communities experience gross underrepresentation in decision making regarding their community due to “procedural injustice,” or  its centralization and inaccessibility, as well as lack of access to adequate education. Id. Undoubtedly a result of historically racist segregation and land use laws, minority residents of Gary have found it incredibly difficult to be represented. The citizens of Gary were polled on community involvement regarding environmental justice issues, and of those who reported attempting to take action, 16% reported that they felt heard and represented. Id. at 7. In the same poll, of the citizens who reported that they did not attempt to be involved in seeking justice for their community, the most common reasoning was that they were unaware of where to start and who to contact. Id.

The Failures of Current Regulatory Agents: The Clean Water Act (1972)

The primary federal law regarding water pollution is the 1974 Clean Water Act, whose main objective is to regulate discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States. Environmental Protection Agency. Clean Water Act Compliance Monitoring. EPA. 2022  Water quality standards are set first, at a baseline requirement of all waters to be “fishable and swimmable,” then at an individual level calculated based on the body of water’s designated purpose. The act also makes it unlawful to discharge any non-permitted pollutant into navigable waters from a point source. Id.  The permit program that controls these discharges is known as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES. US Steel’s “Gary Works” operates under an individual NPDES permit, NPDES Permit No. IN0000281, that is evaluated for compliance and renewed on a 5-year basis. Id. at 46.  Compliance to this permit is ‘enforced’ both federally and at a state level.

Although technically bound to these permits, Gary Works has been cited by both the EPA and IDEM as repeatedly committing permit violations. Between 2013 and 2017, there were more than 40 reported violations ranging from disclosure failures and maintenance, to consistently exceeding daily maximum effluent limits.  Indiana Department of Environmental Management. NPDES Fact Sheet. USSC Midwest. (2021) With the EPA notably dragging their feet, Gary Work’s NPDES permit violations have been underemphasized and inconsequential to a degree that can only be described as criminal.

The city of Gary faces a conundrum that is experienced in countless other poor and minority communities in that it is plagued not by a lack of governing environmental laws and regulations, but by a local and federal indifference to and inability to enforce them. Also referred to and defined by Professor Robert Kuehn as corrective injustice, it has been widely noted that environmental laws are less stringently enforced in poor and minority areas. Robert r. Kuehn, A Taxonomy of Environmental Justice. 30 Environmental Law Reporter (2000). Reported instances of non-compliance have been statistically shown to be less responded to and penalysed less harshly in low-income minority areas than in more wealthy areas of the US. Clifford Villa, Nadia Ahmed, Rebecca Bratspies, Roger Lin, Clifford Rechtschaffen, Eileen Guana, Environmental justice: Law, Policy, and Regulation. Carolina Academic Press. Third Edition (2020). One proposed explanation for this trend centers around collective local action. If government actions are influenced by the political behavior and capacity of affected populations, it would stand to reason that minority and low income populations would be focused on less, due to their lack of access to these political resources. Koniski, at 105. On the other hand, wealthier communities have more access to political representation, education, and group organizational skills, and therefore have the ability to pressure government organizations into strictly enforcing environmental compliance. Id. at 106.

Proposed Solution Step 1: Community Involvement Plan

When a group of residents were asked to identify the “main obstacles to ensuring (their) voices are heard in environmental matters,” the number one response shared between 40% of respondents was lack of understanding and education. Kim Ferraro, Julie Peller, HEC assessment of EJ needs in northern Lake County communities, Hoosier Environmental Council, (2014) When analyzing this survey, it becomes clear that the answer to the citizens of Gary being able to combat the water injustices that they face due to mass industrialization importantly begins with education. A group of better informed citizens on exactly what risks they are facing is much more likely to facilitate and demand public involvement than an uninformed one. An increase in community involvement in local board meetings and other public decision-making forums would provide a key step in closing the dangerous gap between local communities and centralized decision making.

The citizens of Gary have shown a will to be vocal and active in their community for years, and have in partnership with nearby cities created more than 50 active environmentally-focused nonprofit organizations. However, of the community non-profits, none have been specifically dedicated to environmental justice. One contributing factor to this gap is that many of the environmental advocacy groups in the area are limited to a specific cause, such as parks conservation. Id. at 12. Creation of an environmental justice focused non-profit, or a “community advisory group,” that is open for all community members to be involved in would provide the forum needed to advocate for resources such as tangible educational tools. Clifford Villa, Nadia Ahmed, Rebecca Bratspies, Roger Lin, Clifford Rechtschaffen, Eileen Guana, Environmental justice: Law, Policy, and Regulation. Carolina Academic Press. Third Edition (2020). The formation of this sort of grassroots-level community group is the indispensable first step.

One way that a grassroots-level community group could potentially better educate the Gary community would be to utilize its geographical access to an impressive array of academic resources. Sitting within city limits of Gary is an accredited university: Indiana University Northwest. Within Gary’s region and neighboring communities are Purdue University Calumet in Hammond, and Calumet College of St Joseph in Whiting, along with multiple campuses of community-college Ivy Tech. Indiana Colleges Map. NEXT. (2021)  These institutions provide local access to vast resources and local environmental experts, who could be a valuable partner to the community of Gary. Kim Ferraro, Julie Peller, HEC assessment of EJ needs in northern Lake County communities, Hoosier Environmental Council, (2014)

Another way that a community group could better educate members of their area would be to cater specifically to the culture of their community. Id. at 11.  Consider the need for information regarding times and dates of public meetings regarding land-use decision making, and community information sessions. One way that a local group could distribute this knowledge would be to post multilingual flyers around popular areas in the city, including parks, schools, and restaurants. The culture of Gary is deeply rooted in faith. Considering this dependency, posting the aforementioned flyers at churches or making announcements regarding future town meetings after a church service would reach a substantial number of residents.


With a local economy that is depending less and less on local steel production, a more opportune time to demand a great shift away from dangerous over-industrialization has never existed. The citizens of the community of Gary, Indiana have time and time again demonstrated their willingness to participate in community involvement, if only they knew where to begin. The key to setting into motion this shift away from dangerous polluting industry lies in a form of community involvement that has not yet been attempted: a community organization dedicated specifically to environmental justice. Kim Ferraro, Julie Peller, HEC assessment of EJ needs in northern Lake County communities, Hoosier Environmental Council, (2014)