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The Hoosier Environmental Council has found what it is calling environmental injustices in Northwest Indiana.

The new study focuses on Gary, East Chicago and Hammond and said those cities have the highest concentration of heavy industrial activity than anywhere else in the state.

Residents of those cities live with some of the nation's worst air quality and highly contaminated waters as well as elevated cancer and asthma rate, the report says.

"These environmental and public health issues compound the social and economic problems faced by the residents of these mostly-minority populated cities," said Kim Ferraro, HEC senior attorney and co-author of the report. "These communities collectively provide an especially powerful example of a nationwide problem in which poverty begets pollution and pollution begets poverty."

The HEC survey of about 300 residents shows they don't have access to environmental justice, the group said. Environment justice is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as fair treatment and meaningful involvement in environmental matters. According to the HEC, those surveyed identified living with at least three environmental hazards in their community: air pollution, sewer overflows and garbage dumps.

The HEC also said only 1 in 5 surveyed had success in trying to address environmental threats.

Kathy Ryan, a longtime community environmental watchdog, agrees.

"That's so true," she said. "There's no help. You beat your head in the ground trying to get any information."

Ryan said it's especially true of Gary's J-Pit - an abandoned sand mine that's a major focus of the HEC report. The 114-acre pit is near Ryan's Black Oak neighborhood home.

"You feel like you're in the Twilight Zone," she said.

The HEC conducted community-assisted air quality "highly reliable" sampling at different locations in Lake County including East Chicago's Washington Park, where a dramatic spike in a chemical used in metal extraction in the air was discovered at Washington Park.

Thomas Frank, of East Chicago, lives in the Washington Park neighborhood and took part in air sampling.

Frank, the former director of the Indiana Shipping Canal, who also provides "toxic tours" of the area, said he'd like to take part in more of these studies and that "the onus is on us as citizens to prove we're being impaired by industry."

"What I'm hoping to do is prove tools like this as being viable and I really want to encourage a lot of the environmental community to come down here and focus on this area," he said.

NWI Forum Director of Environmental Affairs Kay Nelson said air quality at monitoring locations meets federal standards and the non-attainment ozone status is the result of a violation at an Illinois monitoring location - not Indiana. She also said while testing kits can provide insight, there is a difference between that kit and federally mandated testing mechanisms and quality control/assurance requirements.

"As the citizen samples are not in compliance with federal requirements, cross contamination can occur, results may be inaccurate and subsequently is not a true scientifically picture of the actual conditions," she said.

The HEC said on a positive note the report found "a vibrant civil society of community empowerment and faith-based groups interested in issues of social justice generally."

Nelson said the Forum is pleased residents are concerned about the environment in their communities and the Forum applauds environmental improvements made in business and industry to help air and water quality.

"The EPA was not in existence more than 100 years ago when the major industries began operating, nor could they for see issues that might affect the environment," she said.

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Lake County reporter

Rob covers urban affairs and other matters in Crown Point, St. John, Winfield and beyond. Previously he covered Valparaiso, Hammond, Gary and East Chicago. He's also written for various magazines and pens a culture blog for The Times.