The Geography of Pollution: Mapping Environmental Justice in Indiana ("GOP Project") is a collaborative project created by Ryan Schwier and Peter Elliott, students at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, for a semester-long course taught by Prof. Carlton Waterhouse during the fall of 2014. 

The project is geared toward a general audience as well as scholars and practitioners (legal, environmental, or otherwise). For those with a casual interest in learning about environmental justice, the project provides an introductory overview through historical narrative and engaging interactive media. For those interested in researching the topic further, the site provides links to a variety of primary sources, including legal and administrative materials (court documents, EPA decisions, etc.), historical maps, and community action plans.

Structurally, the project entails three components: (1) an introductory historical narrative with interactive media, (2) an ongoing investigation of lead-contaminated sites throughout the state, and (3) a resource toolkit.

historical overview

The first component of this project provides a historical overview of the environmental justice movement. Through narrative text and interactive media, this portion of the project includes (1) a broad introduction to the EJ movement in the United States, discussing significant events and persons that have defined the movement at the national stage; and (2)  contemporary developments in Indiana, examined in close historical context with an emphasis on the state’s two largest urban centers—Indianapolis and Lake County. 

By drawing on a range of primary and secondary sources, the purpose of this section is to illustrate patterns of environmental inequities over time and to provide a basis or starting point for addressing lingering issues of injustice today. 

lead-contaminated site investigation

scope & Purpose

In 1980, Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. § 1906 et seq., commonly known as “Superfund.” The law established a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries, which went into a trust fund (the “Superfund”) for cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. In addition to creating property owner liability for site contamination (both past and present), CERCLA authorizes two types of response actions: (1) short-term removals to address hazardous substance releases or threatened releases requiring prompt response; and (2) long-term remediation to permanently and significantly reduce the dangers associated with releases or threatened releases of serious (albeit not immediately life threatening) hazardous substances. The latter of these actions are conducted only at sites listed on EPA’s National Priorities List (NPL).

According to the EPA:

Lead is one of the most frequently occurring contaminants at Superfund sites. Over 300 sites on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) have lead as a contaminant of concern. Over 70 are contaminated with lead from smelting and mineral processing operations. The presence of lead at these sites poses a potential threat to human health, especially to children, when ingested or inhaled.

In 2012, USA Today published “Ghost Factories,” an online interactive report detailing the results of a 14-month investigation on neglected lead factory sites, which state and federal regulators had either overlooked or failed to examine closely for potential health hazards to surrounding communities. Through research of historical maps and industry directories, investigative journalists discovered evidence of former smelting, foundry work, or lead manufacturing activity at more than 230 sites. With the assistance of environmental specialists, the USA Today conducted soil tests in 21 smelter neighborhoods across 13 states (including Indiana) to determine the level of lead at a particular site. The investigation, which was based on an article published in 2001 by William Eckel in the American Journal of Public Health, has resulted in the EPA and several states conducting investigations and examining health risks at hundreds of sites nationwide.

The Geography of Pollution project seeks, in part, to build upon the USA Today report by identifying other potentially contaminated sites in Indiana. However, The Geography of Pollution project is limited to researching historical evidence of potential lead contamination; it has not conducted soil tests at any of the sites listed here. In addition, many of these sites here include those those previously identified by either the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). These sites are featured here to bring attention to the (often-protracted) efforts of state and federal agencies in responding to environmental cleanups in certain urban areas of the state. 

methodology & sources

Research for this project consisted on two phases: (1) identifying sites with historical evidence of lead contamination, and (2) cross-checking those sites with EPA and IDEM databases to determine past or current remediation (or cleanup) efforts by either agency.

The first phase involved researching several historical sources; these included industry and manufacturing directories, city directories, newspaper articles, Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, and other materials. A majority of this research was conducted at the Indiana State Library and the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Library (including digital collections). 

signgificance to environmental justice

The focus on lead is particularly significant to the environmental justice movement. Minorities, especially African-Americans, suffer from much higher levels of lead poisoning than the U.S. population as a whole. This is largely the result of living conditions; because of the high concentration of minorities in urban areas, African-Americans are frequently exposed to lead-based paint in older homes and from decades of accumulated industrial pollution found in the surrounding air, soil, and water. The effects of lead on minority children, who are much more likely to be exposed to the toxic substance from play (both indoors or outdoors), have particularly devastating consequences on mental and physical development. 

In compounding this problem, strong evidence indicates that state and federal governments often take longer to address environmental hazards in minority communities. An investigation by the National Law Journal in 1992 revealed that contaminated residential sites eligible for cleanup under the federal “Superfund” program took 20 percent longer in minority communities “to be placed on the national priority action list than those in white areas.” The study also found that, “[i]n more than half of the 10 autonomous regions that administer EPA programs around the country, action on cleanup at Superfund sites begins from 12 percent to 42 percent later at minority sites than at white sites.” 

Resource toolkit

The “Resource Toolkit” serves as an information repository for community groups and organizations, attorneys, policymakers, and others working to implement the goals of environmental justice. While the geographic focus here centers on Indiana, is portion of the project is designed to serve as a model for other communities as well. Resources include an extensive bibliography of secondary literature as well as the following:

  • Relevant environmental laws (state and federal);
  • Executive/administrative documents (State and Federal);
  • Cases;
  • Model legislation;
  • Community development plans;
  • Government reports and NGO studies;
  • Demographic statistics and other data; and 
  • Historical documents, including maps, zoning ordinances, institutional studies, newspaper articles, and more.