NWI environmental groups mark Earth Day
By Christin Nance Lazerus firstname.lastname@example.org April 21, 2014 10:28PM
Kids from the South Haven Boys and Girls Club work on a project spreading wood mulch around the playground at Field of Dreams Park in Portage Township on Saturday, April 19, 2014. The work was part of the township park department's Team Up 2 Clean Up event. | Michael Gard/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 23, 2014 6:26AM
The quality of Northwest Indiana’s environment has improved in some ways — demonstrably lower levels of air and water pollution — since the first Earth Day in 1970, but challenges from the area’s industrial legacy still exist for citizens and activists.
Groups throughout Northwest Indiana have marked the anniversary with cleanup and other conservation efforts in the run up to Tuesday. LaPorte resident Terry McCloskey said Northwest Indiana residents haven’t been proactive environmentally.
“Only when something gets shoved down their throats do people speak up,” McCloskey said.
McCloskey has been active with the Izaak Walton League, Save The Dunes, the Shirley Heinze Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy during his career. In the mid-1970s, his family’s auto business in Hammond sat in front of what would later become Gibson Woods.
“My father and I put down a deposit to acquire the property,” he said. “It was zoned for trucking, so if would have waited, it would have been snapped up.”
But through a petition drive that collected 10,000 signatures as well as commitments by local politicians, it became a county park.
“From an environmental perspective, they didn’t sign it because they love the rabbits and trees, necessarily,” McCloskey said. “They didn’t want a trucking company there, and we convinced them it was only a matter of time.”
The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was established in 1966, just four years prior to the establishment of Earth Day. Save the Dunes, which was established in 1952, has worked to protect the national park from threats ever since, the group’s director, Nicole Barker, said.
Barker said early threats included fighting a proposed nuclear plant next to the park and the National Park Service’s plans for the park, such as swimming pools and soccer fields proposed at West Beach.
“We knew that the sensitivity of the ecosystem couldn’t handle those impacts,” Barker said.
McCloskey said it was only laws such as the federal Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act that forced companies to replace scrubbers and water treatment systems.
“U.S. Steel put off installing scrubbers as long as legally possible,” he said. “And after all these years, you still see stories about companies dumping chemicals in the Hammond Sanitary District.”
The park still faces less visible but just as serious threats, such as invasive species and the effects of climate change, the environmentalists said.
“One of the greatest problems now is invasive species,” Barker said. “The Dunes is somewhere (among) the fourth or fifth most biodiverse park (in the nation), but it’s threatened every day by invasive species.”
Save the Dunes also focuses on area water quality projects, such as a stormwater detention project in Valparaiso, because of their effects on Lake Michigan.
“All of the watershed that drains into Lake Michigan impacts the water quality in the Dunes,” she said.
One of Northwest Indiana continuing problems, flooding along the Little Calumet River, is partially due to a legacy of bad decisions, McCloskey said.
“When they built the levees, they missed the point,” he said. “Gary said it was being flooded, so they built the project backward even though 98 percent of damages were west of Cline Avenue. It took 20 years to get to Hammond, but their water can’t flow into Illinois due to a dam. But it has to go somewhere.”
McCloskey said people may speak out against projects such as the proposed Illiana Expressway, but it doesn’t stop those in power from pushing them forward.
“I think we’re at status quo,” he said. “Have people’s attitudes changed that much? I don’t think so.”