The Hoosier Environmental Council is leading a grant-funded pilot project in Gary aimed at empowering residents affected by pollution there.
"This is not a political issue, this is a social justice issue," said Kim Ferraro, staff attorney for the Hoosier Environmental Council. "This is about helping people who are suffering."
Ferraro on Tuesday announced the six-month project during a webinar centered on environmental justice in Northwest Indiana.
The program is being funded by a $25,000 grant from the Legacy Foundation, which is Lake County's community foundation, and the Knight Foundation.
The project partners the Hoosier Environmental Council with two local community groups, The Calumet Project and the United Urban Network.
The organizations hope to empower residents in Gary by training them to collect air and water samples, which are sent to research scientists at Indiana University Northwest for analysis. Indiana University medical school students also will analyze the samples for health risks.
The data then will be returned to the groups for further analysis. The Hoosier Environmental Council will teach the groups and residents about environmental laws and train them on how best to address issues with elected officials, industry and regulatory agencies.
Ferraro said northern Lake County has a higher population of low-income minorities than any other area in the state. The area also has the highest concentration of heavy industry, hazardous waste sites and Superfund sites in the state, along with the highest cancer rate and hospitalizations for children from asthma-related illnesses.
Ferraro said there is an imbalance of power when it comes to pollution prevention, remediation and action that needs to be addressed.
"Over the long term, we really need to remove the economic burden to access to legal assistance and the courts," Ferraro said. "Environmental justice is not just about racial discrimination, but it's also about issues of class and income inequality."