Coal-fired power plant, originally designed as a nuclear plant, A cooling tower looms over a home in Michigan City.
Coal-fired power plant, originally designed as a nuclear plant, A cooling tower looms over a home in Michigan City. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane
U.S. Steel Plant as viewed from Whiting, IndianaCredit: Lloyd DeGrane

In a modest field house in Chicago’s Calumet Park, the James P. Fitzgibbons Memorial Museum showcases faded photos and newspaper clippings of South Chicago’s industrial glory days: steel mill picnics, brass bands, and bloody strikes. For Chicago these are only memories; the city’s south-side steel mills and affiliated industries were long ago shuttered and dismantled.

But beyond the Indiana state line, steelmaking and other heavy industries are very much alive. Scaled back from decades past, industry still offers a panorama of belching smokestacks and blazing flares, and a latticework of conveyor belts, blast furnaces, and coking ovens. An apocalyptic skyline still rises against the waters of Lake Michigan.

Fisherman at night at State LineCredit: Lloyd DeGrane
Fishermen at dawn at State LineCredit: Lloyd DeGrane
Warm water discharge from State LineCredit: Lloyd DeGrane
Zebra mussels along the beach in WhitingCredit: Lloyd DeGrane
Heavy machinery waiting to be installed at the BP refineryCredit: Lloyd DeGrane
The BP refineryCredit: Lloyd DeGrane
Kids make their way to school in Marktown with the refinery in the backgroundCredit: Lloyd DeGrane
Children’s playground in Whiting, with the refinery in the backgroundCredit: Lloyd DeGrane

Photographer Lloyd DeGrane has been taking pictures of this spectacle for more than a year, and leading what he calls “toxic tours” along the Indiana coast. Some of his photos appear here. They’re part of a much bigger project to record the impact of human encroachment on the Great Lakes.

Where the Illinois/Indiana border meets Lake Michigan, it is marked by a corroded stone obelisk in front of the gates of a century-old coal-fired power plant named simply State Line. Red-and-white-striped smokestacks rise above a handsome brick building that easily recalls the days long past when it was lauded as a modern miracle rather than reviled as an archaic polluter.

Just southeast of this Hammond power plant, U.S. Steel’s largest mill—Gary Works—forges massive sheets that are shipped across the Great Lakes and beyond. Its affiliated East Chicago Tin plant creates metal destined for the cans of the paint, food, drink, and aerosol industries nationwide.

Nearby, at the BP Whiting Refinery—one of the largest in the country—a virtual new city of towers, stacks, and massive machinery has sprung up over in the past year to turn the viscous bitumen piped here from Alberta’s vast tar sands into gasoline, asphalt, propane, and other by-products. In 2007, BP’s plan to increase the dumping of suspended solids—or “sludge”—into Lake Michigan gained national attention. BP revised its water discharge plan but continued with its expansion, which environmental groups say will seriously increase contamination of the nearby air and water.

Lake Michigan often looks pristine here, either cerulean blue under cold clear skies or a moody green as storms blow through. But the water’s clarity is a sign not of health but of the tiny invasive zebra mussels that colonize water intakes and virtually any hard surface in Lake Michigan. They cost millions of dollars a year to remove. The mussels’ filtering keeps the lake water looking clean, but only because we can’t see the mercury, arsenic, PAHs, PCBs, E. coli, and other contaminants that settle from the nearby smokestacks or flow in from the Grand Calumet River—one of the country’s most polluted waterways. The Grand Calumet winds for 13 miles through Gary and U.S. Steel’s adjacent operations before emptying a billion gallons a day into the lake via a canal. About 90 percent of the river’s flow is actually industrial and municipal wastewater.

The Grand Calumet is one of the Great Lakes’ 43 “Areas of Concern” designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. U.S. Steel has been dredging toxic heavy metals and PCBs and PAHs from the riverbed, but dredging creates a new problem: where to put the contaminated sediment? East Chicago, Indiana, residents fought plans to truck this waste through their community, instead forcing the piping of the waste to a special disposal site.

Warning sign along the Grand Calumet River in East ChicagoCredit: Lloyd DeGrane
Girl at a junk yard fire in East ChicagoCredit: Lloyd DeGrane
Algae on a public beach in WhitingCredit: Lloyd DeGrane
PCB warning sign in Cowboy TownCredit: Lloyd DeGrane
Chihuahua on a raft at the 95th Street Beach in ChicagoCredit: Lloyd DeGrane
Girl snorkling at the 95th Street BeachCredit: Lloyd DeGrane
Rev. Rod Reinhardt at a water blessing along the Calumet RiverCredit: Lloyd DeGrane
A red flag at 95th Street Beach signals the beach is closed for swimmingCredit: Lloyd DeGrane

In November the last residents left Gary’s Cowboy Town, an enclave tucked between the Skyway, the Gary airport, and a lagoon jutting off the Calumet River that had been a dumping ground for the Gary sanitary district. Hanging from battered chain-link fences are signs warning of the lagoon’s PCB-laden sediment. Here residents had raised horses, chickens, and other animals until they were forced to leave so a long-delayed cleanup can begin.

In nearby historic Marktown, residents live in colorful houses built in 1917 as a “utopian” community for steelworkers. The narrow streets culminate in striking views of the BP refinery, and homemade signs honor Marktown residents killed in Afghanistan.

Lost on many of the Chicagoans who zoom by on the Skyway is how many people live and work in the shadows of this heavy industry, accepting its metallic, petroleum, and chemical odors. The factories and furnaces still provide union jobs, which maintain the perhaps faded but still vibrant downtowns of Hammond and Whiting. Even Gary, despite its infamous decline, is Indiana’s fifth-largest city and fighting for a resurgence.

On frigid mornings, fishermen cluster on treacherous metal slats over the lake behind the State Line power plant and catch smallmouth bass, brown trout, and other fish drawn by the plant’s warm outflow. On summer days, families flock to the shoreline’s beaches, unperturbed by their industrial setting. The factories and refineries are so much a part of the landscape they seem almost organic, beautiful even, in the golden morning sunlight or murky purple fog.

That it has long been this way is no reason—say community groups, urban planners, and environmentalists—that it should always remain this way: the people of northwest Indiana and South Chicago deserve clean water to swim in, uncontaminated fish to catch, and healthy air to breathe. But locals say it’s complicated; the sources of contamination can’t simply shut down, nor do people want them to. Activists say the refinery and coal plant should be replaced by greener manufacturing, perhaps by factories that make wind turbines or high-tech batteries for electric cars. But even those facilities would use energy and create pollution, which seem to be unavoidable by-products of our need for power and products.

“I used to look at BP and think I was seeing the enemy,” says DeGrane. “Then I realized it’s not black-and-white, it’s many shades of gray. The problem is not them. It’s us.”

Lake MichiganCredit: Lloyd DeGrane