Though you may not realize it, nearly all of Chicago’s lakefront is actually fill. Over the past 150 years, the city has used lake dredge and even debris from the Great Fire of 1871 to build shoreline parks and gathering spaces such as Grant Park and Northerly Island. Steelworkers Park is also entirely lakefill, although its story is a little different. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, US Steel spent years secretly—and illegally—dumping molten slag (a byproduct of the steelmaking process) into Lake Michigan, expanding their own property. Witnesses reported steam rising from the lakefront in the middle of the night as the hot molten slag hit the water. The dumping aroused the suspicions of the US Army Corps of Engineers when they tried to construct a pier out into the lake—only to find that the shore was catching up with them. In total, US Steel illegally built all the land stretching from the edge of the park back to Lake Shore Drive.
The slag that this land was built out of is referred to as ferrous slag, so called because it was produced through the steel making process. Ferrous slag is one of the least toxic types of slag. Even though it has the potential to release toxic elements such as vanadium and chromium, because of its acid-neutralizing capacities, it is generally understood by the scientific community to not release environmentally significant amounts of these elements and therefore to be safe for humans. Some of the other pollutants emitted by the steel mills are much worse for people and the environment, and they were released en masse into the Calumet River through unregulated dumping. Solid waste settled into stream beds and caused lingering hazards and pollution. The US Department of Health, Education and Welfare concluded in a report that all area streams were "severely polluted." It was also determined through an EPA survey that many area yards were contaminated with lead. While the cause of this pollution is unclear, lead is used during the steelmaking process and would have been present in the plants. Additionally, the mills produced significant amounts of air pollution through both the production of coke and other byproducts of the steelmaking process. This air pollution and other hazards in the plant severely impacted workers' health; workers experienced higher rates of lung cancer and almost 90% rates of fibrosis (tissue scarring) in the lungs due to breathing in the dust from the plant. This pollution was in a large part caused by the culture of the steel plants in which managers would say things like “I don’t live in that neighborhood” when choosing to dump untreated waste, along with choices to run the plants at night to pollute unnoticed while residents were sleeping. The environmental regulations at the time were toothless; many companies simply chose to pay fines and keep polluting.
Industry shaped the lives of Southeast Chicago residents; it shaped the local economy and the types of activities people did. Bars, taverns and other recreational businesses were places for steelworkers to mingle with one another and have a drink after a long day’s work. When the steel mills closed, these businesses suffered as well. Many went out of business because people were unable to afford these activities and everyone’s schedules shifted as people were no longer working long shifts through the night or all day. The steel mills provided well-paying jobs that did not require higher education; when people were laid off, it was difficult for people to replace those good jobs. As a result, the area declined economically. Many people left to live in cheaper places with better opportunities, such as Indiana. Furthermore, there was a sense of reliance on the steel industry for the number of people they employed in the area, and since the steel jobs had put food on the table, not many people had paid attention to the environmental damage that was occurring until after the closing of the steel mills. The environmental justice movement came about as community members saw friends and family suffer from the health effects of the toxins released by the steel mills, especially after their closing.
The deep-rooted history of industry in the Calumet has left an environmental legacy that current residents still live with. The soil still includes contaminants, and areas zoned for industry continue to produce toxins that lower air quality. As a result, community members have taken up the fight to redefine the environmental legacy of the Calumet, motivated by environmental justice: the idea that everyone should have equal access to safe and clean environments. Rather than accept that the Calumet must be a region of environmental toxins, community leaders have organized to hold industry accountable for the environmental impact of their production processes. Environmental justice activists have achieved meaningful progress, ensuring that industries using toxic manganese keep it securely covered and working to develop real-time air quality monitors. Though industry in the Calumet has changed, production carries on, and community members are fighting to ensure that the future of the Calumet is one in which all community members can live safe and healthy lives. (Audio clip by local birder Dan Lory; cover photo courtesy of UIC Library Digital Archives)