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The ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor complex in East Chicago is shown from the air in October 2016. 

EAST CHICAGO — In a community that once billed itself as the most industrialized city in America, elected leaders for the second time this year have voiced opposition to a proposed industrial permit.

The City Council last month voted 8-0 to adopt a resolution opposing an air permit application for Indiana Harbor Coke Co. without "an aggressive schedule of compliance." Mayor Anthony Copeland signed the resolution.

The vote was significant because it shows residents are starting to stand up for themselves, said Councilman Robert Garcia, whose 5th District is home to the Indiana Harbor Coke Co. facility at 3210 Watling St.

The company, a subsidiary of SunCoke Energy, supplies coke for the blast furnaces at the ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill in East Chicago.

The city struggles with high rates of asthma, cancer and infant mortality, and still is reeling from fallout over the environmental cleanup at the USS Lead Superfund site in the 3rd District.

Garcia said risk of exposure to toxins generated by the many industries in East Chicago is cumulative.

"We have got to take a stand. We're not going to live with the pollution," Garcia said. "We're not going to allow the companies to come in and just pollute the air and pollute us."

Copeland said in a statement the resolution was the strongest possible response and showed the city is united in its opposition to Indiana Harbor Coke Co.'s proposed permit.

"East Chicago is in the midst of a significant transformation from being solely known as an industrial hub," Copeland said. "Although we continue to enjoy a robust manufacturing base, we also recognize the important balance that we must maintain to make the city an attractive place to work and live."

'We don't have to trade health for jobs'

Midwestern cities often side with companies and economic growth, said Mark Templeton, director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago.

While he was not familiar with the details surrounding the Indiana Harbor Coke Co. permit application, Templeton said it's generally a big deal when communities take a stand like East Chicago's elected leaders have done.

"When a city steps up and says, 'We don't want something' or 'Something has negative consequences, and they need to stop doing it,' that's a pretty big and bold action," Templeton said.

The Southeast Environmental Task Force in Chicago has threatened to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its handling of the permit renewal process, citing numerous violations during the past decade.

Thomas Frank, a board member for the Southeast Environmental Task Force, East Chicago resident and member of the Community Strategy Group, said residents' values are changing. 

"We're seeing the representative leaders following the interests of the community," he said. "They're saying, 'No, we don't want this anymore. We don't have to trade our health for jobs. We don't have to trade our health for economic development. We want both.'"

The Community Strategy Group helped lead an effort last summer to oppose a risk-based permit that would have allowed the Army Corps of Engineers to dispose of highly toxic sediment from the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal at the confined disposal facility, 3500 Indianapolis Blvd., which is near several city schools.

The City Council voted in July to adopt a resolution opposing the Army Corps' proposed permit, and IDEM and EPA announced last fall they would study an off-site disposal option.

In Indiana Harbor Coke Co.'s case, environmentalists want regulators to ensure repeated air permit violations cease or shut the facility down, Frank said. 

IDEM: Enforcement action pending

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is reviewing Indiana Harbor Coke Co.'s air permit renewal application and is aware of the City Council's resolution, a department spokesman said.

"The resolution will be considered and addressed in the response and comments," IDEM said.

The department held a public hearing on the proposed permit in November and is currently reviewing testimony from the hearing and written comments before making a final determination.

"Once IDEM has drafted responses to all comments received during the public review period, a revised draft of the permit documents and the responses to comments will be submitted to EPA for an additional 45-day review period," a department spokesman said. "EPA can provide additional comments at that time, and IDEM would work with them to address those comments."

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb told The Times on Dec. 15 the permit application is being reviewed, but it's too early to comment on any possible decision.

An IDEM spokesman said the department, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice also have been working with Indiana Harbor Coke Co. to resolve compliance issues at the facility.

"There is an open enforcement action pending with IHCC," IDEM said. "We anticipate a resolution of these settlement negotiations in the near future."


Public safety reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.