Transition is Inevitable. Justice is Not.

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The Just Transition NWI crew. Photo courtesy of Ashley Williams

There’s a city on the shores of Lake Michigan fighting to protect itself from toxic ash during a respiratory pandemic. For decades, residents in Michigan City, Indiana have lived just blocks from a coal fired power plant, its large cooling tower casting a dark shadow at the edge of the lake’s blue-gray waters; its smoke stack belching pollution; its waste contaminating waters, air, and soil.

“Our community is tired,” says La’Tonya Troutman, a local activist and organizer.

No doubt. Decades of environmental racism will do that to a community.

“We want more corporate responsibility. Corporations have gotten away with putting profits before the people,” she says. “But if you’re poisoning us over time, then you need to be held to a certain level of responsibility, because your corporation has the ability to not poison us.”

Troutman is leading the fight against Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) to hold them accountable for their decades-old mess and to help the community take its power back.

“This community is on the rise,” she says. “We’re coming together and we’re asking for corporations to be more responsible with, not only how they treat us as customers, but us as a community, and our environment.”

The Michigan City Generating Station (MCGS) is now slated to be shut down by 2028. It may come as no surprise that the process of shutting down a dirty coal plant can be extremely dirty in its own right. I explain in an earlier post that we’re seeing this play out in real time in Little Village, right here in Chicago.

At issue right now in Michigan City is the closure of the site’s five coal ash ponds. This process poses a very real respiratory risk to the residents at any time, but especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Lisa Evans, a coal ash expert and attorney with Earthjustice, the coal ash removal has the potential to create toxic dust and particulate pollution around the site. Recent studies have shown that high levels of air pollution can lead to an increase in fatalities from Covid-19.

What else should come as no surprise? It is overwhelmingly communities of color that experience the highest levels of air pollution in this country. Pollution that, by the way, is predominantly produced by consumption in white communities, as a 2019 study found. Pollution that Trump’s EPA has recently refused to regulate more aggressively, despite evidence that current standards are inadequate and could lead to thousands of preventable deaths a year. The residents of Michigan City already suffer from high rates of asthma and other diseases that put them at greater risk for severe cases of Covid-19, as Troutman knows all too well. Her brother-in-law was the first Covid-19 related death in Michigan City.

Are we seeing a pattern here?

Addressing police brutality is just the tip of the iceberg if we’re truly committed to protecting Black lives in America.

In Michigan City, a number of groups, including Just Transition NWI, the NAACP LaPorte County Branch, Earthjustice, and the Hoosier Environmental Council, are demanding that NIPSCO, which owns MCGS, ensure the closure of the plant and the coal ash ponds is as safe as possible, and is responsive to the needs of the community. Specifically, these groups have three immediate demands:

  • That NIPSCO postpone the closure of the coal ash ponds until after the danger of Covid-19 pandemic has passed
  • That the community has a role in overseeing the excavation and removal of the coal ash through the creation of a citizen advisory committee (CAC)
  • That NIPSCO agree to the monitoring of the air and waters of Trail Creek and Lake Michigan as well as aquatic life

The closure of the coal plant represents an opportunity to reclaim and remediate toxic land, and let the citizens, not corporations, decide how to use it.

“At exactly the right moment the community is finding a voice, getting organized, and sharpening its demands,” says Evans.

Here’s a quick primer on coal ash: It’s a waste product produced when coal is burned for electricity. Toxic heavy metals — including arsenic, boron, lithium, molybdenum, and selenium — concentrate in the leftover ash. Depending on how the ash is disposed of — that is, if it’s not in specially-lined ponds — it can contaminate nearby groundwater, soil, and air.

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The MCGS smokestack looming over Michigan City’s Lighthouse Mall. Photo by Raymar Brunson

Michigan City has been a coal town since the 1930s. Since coal ash has not been subject to any state or federal regulations until the EPA enacted the Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule in 2015, for decades the ash was either repurposed for uses such as concrete, for example, or was put into landfills or ponds (often unlined). Sometimes it was used as fill — more on that in a minute.

As a quick legal aside — Evans explained to me that the EPA had twice proposed designating coal ash as a hazardous waste, therefore making it subject to strict federal regulations. That would seem appropriate, given its toxicity. But the coal lobby successfully convinced both presidential administrations in both those instances to reverse that finding. That was under the Clinton administration, then the Obama administration. Now, the Trump administration has proposed a series of rollbacks that would weaken the CCR rule. Because, of course they did.

The coal ash ponds at MCGS are unlined. NIPSCO is proposing to remove the coal ash from the ponds and transport it to a lined landfill in nearby Jasper County, Indiana. On its face, this process is the best-case scenario for coal ash removal. But there are some problems.

First, NIPSCO needs to have a plan to monitor the air and contain fugitive dust, the particulate matter that can escape and spread during the removal and transportation process. This is what poses the biggest threat to the respiratory health of the residents in Michigan City, as well as anyone along the transportation route and near the disposal site in Jasper County, not to mention the workers involved in the process. As of now, NIPSCO doesn’t have a plan for this.

Second, the coal ash in the ponds isn’t the only coal ash on the site. Much of the land at the site is fill, as I mentioned earlier. This is built land that was created decades ago to provide an area to put the ponds. This built land contains a mixture of sand, soil, and coal ash.

According to Dr. Indra Frank from the Hoosier Environmental Council, there’s strong evidence this coal ash is contaminating the groundwater and seeping into nearby Trail Creek, and possibly Lake Michigan. To complicate the matter, the fill is held in place by steel pilings that have been there for decades and are deteriorating. Should they fail, which they will at some point, it would mean a lot of coal ash winding up in Lake Michigan and Trail Creek, posing an even greater risk of contaminating surrounding areas.

One of the primary concerns from this contamination is arsenic. Dr. Frank says it is not elevated in surface water samples, nor, importantly, the community’s drinking water, but it is present in high levels in pore water samples — when you probe deeper underground. Arsenic accumulates in the food chain, so the further up you go, the more concentrated it gets. That means it can be present in high levels in predatory fish, which could threaten the health of those residents who fish in Trail Creek.

The residents on the west side of Michigan City, where the plant is located, are at the frontlines of this fight for the health of their community and environment. It is also a predominantly Black part of town.

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A playground with the MCGS cooling tower nearby. Photo by Raymar Brunson

“NIPSCO has a long legacy of environmental racism,” says Ashley Williams, a Michigan City organizer and member of Just Transition NWI.

“Within our community, we know the injustice doesn’t end with the closure of the coal plant,” she says. “We know that if we don’t fight and demand that the site is in the hands of the people, that there’s involvement at every level, collaboration and inclusivity, that it’s not going to happen.”

Together, Troutman and Williams formed Just Transition NWI to mobilize the community around ensuring their safety during the closure of the coal ash ponds, and the eventual closure and demolition of the entire plant. But that’s just the beginning of their work. Just Transition NWI is a community-led, grassroots organization that’s envisioning and advocating for a transition to an equitable and ecologically sustainable future for the northwest Indiana region.

The concept of a Just Transition envisions a radical shift away from our extractive, exploitative system of capitalism (including, but not limited to our fossil fuel-based energy system) by creating a democratized, decentralized, and diverse economic and energy system that is not based on excessive consumption, and that redistributes resources and power. Movement Generation, an Oakland, California based nonprofit and leader in the Just Transition movement puts it this way:

“… Just Transition to us represents a set of aligned strategies to transition whole communities toward thriving economies that provide dignified, productive, and ecologically sustainable livelihoods that are governed directly by workers and communities.”

The first step in moving the Michigan City community closer to a Just Transition is getting NIPSCO to listen to them. While the company has held meetings in other communities in northwest Indiana, and has met with community leaders, they have not reached out at a grassroots level to the residents of Michigan City, who will be most immediately impacted by the coal ash removal and the closure of MCGS.

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A slice of heaven. Photo by Raymar Brunson

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) is holding a public comment period so community members and other concerned parties can weigh in on the closure plan. Troutman and Williams are hoping IDEM will get the message that Michigan City residents must be heard and protected at every step of the MCGS closure process, and they want IDEM to hold NIPSCO responsible for cleaning up their decades of pollution. They’ve also created at Change.org petition to show that people across northwest Indiana, and even further afield, are paying attention to what happens here and they expect residents to be kept safe.

The public comment period closes on Monday, June 22nd. But that’s not the end of this process.

“The work is only beginning after Monday,” says Williams.

The fight for a Just Transition in northwest Indiana will be a marathon, not a sprint.

Troutman is involved in the NAACP campaign “We Are Done Dying,” which was created in the wake of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. But it’s all-inclusive, she says, and applies here, as well.

“We are done dying, environmentally,” she says. “We are done with asthma, we are done with cancer. We are done. We can’t take any more. We can’t afford it. It’s cost us money. It’s cost us lives. It’s cost us our community.”

As a note: I’ll be continuing to follow this story over the coming months and years. After just a handful of interviews, I have more information than I could reasonably put in one post. There are a lot of layers to explore here, so expect more to come. It also feels like serendipity that I’ve stumbled upon a group of organizers who are not only fighting the good fight against corporate greed and irresponsibility, but are advocating for a vision of a radically different, more compassionate, more sustainable economy. La’Tonya, Ashley, and the other folks at Just Transition NWI are showing the kind of political imagination we so desperately need right now. I’m honored to be telling this story, and I can’t wait to see what they do.

If you want to follow along with Just Transition NWI’s work, you can find them on social media:

Facebook @JustTransitionNWI

Twitter @TransitionNWI

Instagram @JustTransitionNWI

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