Public Interest The activists say the company is a "corporate renegade," raking in a record amount of public subsidies while illegally polluting Indiana"s air and water. The company says the activists are on a smear campaign, and will only be happy when Hoosiers return to "walking on our knuckles and living in caves."
For entertainment purposes alone, there should be public hearings on this fight. But there are more important reasons why the Indiana Department of Environmental Management should let the public weigh in on AK Steel"s upcoming requests for renewals of air and water discharge permits for its Rockport, Ind., plant. Just seven years ago, AK Steel promised to build a Southwestern Indiana steel plant with state-of-the-art environmental protections. In return, the company received a whopping $71 million in tax breaks and government subsidies as an incentive to locate the plant - and the 600 jobs it creates - along the Ohio River in Spencer County. Now, a new study released by the United Steelworkers of America and seven environmental groups, including the Hoosier Environmental Council and the Citizens Action Coalition, says that AK Steel"s Rockport Works is the state"s biggest water polluter and has violated the Clean Air Act each of the last eight quarters. Among the charges in the report, entitled "State of the Art Has Never Been More Toxic," are that AK Steel has violated its wastewater discharge permit over 50 times since it started operations in 1998. The Rockport facility, which was the subject of a five-part Notice of Violation from IDEM earlier this year, put out 11.8 tons of nitrate compounds into the Ohio River in 2000. "What AK Steel has been able to get away with in Indiana - especially for a state-of-the-art facility - is unconscionable," says Diane Heminway of the United Steelworkers. Heminway labels AK Steel as "nothing less than a corporate renegade," noting the company operates a Pennsylvania plant rated as the nation"s top water polluter, with the Rockport facility ranking No. 3. "The fact of the matter is that they are one of the biggest polluters in the country," Heminway says. AK Steel spokesperson Alan McCoy responds that the Rockport plant has addressed earlier problems and has been in compliance with its wastewater discharge permit since April 2001. Noting that the Rockport facility is non-union, McCoy says the study is part of a "smear campaign" against AK Steel by the steelworkers union. "It is not coincidental that the Steelworkers are not in Northwest Indiana complaining about the [unionized] mills there," he says. McCoy was similarly defiant toward the environmental organizations complaining about the plant. "They will never be happy until we are walking on our knuckles and living in caves," he says. IDEM spokesperson Amy Hartsock confirmed that the air and water permits should be reviewed within the first few months of 2003. But requests for public hearings on such renewals are not always granted. Hartsock said that IDEM could instead choose private meetings where parties could discuss the issues. Environmentalists and the union, who want tighter discharge controls and more monitoring of AK"s plant, insist the process should be open to all interested citizens. It seems a reasonable request. Seventy-one million dollars ought to at least buy a little public input. To read the "State of the Art Has Never Been So Toxic" report online, checkwww.InsideAK.org
. Preventing Pottersville Stella Adams, a legendary North Carolina-based warrior against predatory lending, brought a cautionary holiday message to Indianapolis last week. Invoking the seasonal favorite It"s a Wonderful Life in her talk at the Access to Justice Conference sponsored by Indiana Legal Services, Adams asked a group of lawyers and state officials to remember the imagined fate of the movie"s town of Bedford Falls. When an unscrupulous home lender was allowed to operate unchecked, the idyllic town deteriorated into Pottersville, an impoverished ghetto named after cinema"s most notorious predatory lender. "Pottersville is what Indiana is going to be if you don"t stop the predatory lending that is making this the No. 1 place for foreclosures in the nation," Adams said. She was referring to data compiled by the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, which ranks Indiana at the top of all states for foreclosure rates, as well as Marion County"s record-setting pace toward 6,000 home foreclosures this year. (Full disclosure: In addition to my NUVO duties, I work part-time on housing issues for non-profit groups opposed to predatory lending. I plead guilty to a journalistic bias against lenders who rip off elderly folks and foreclose on their homes.) Adams, the executive director of the North Carolina Fair Housing Center, recounted how her state once endured Indiana"s current problem of too many unwitting homeowners being charged exorbitant loan fees, crippling pre-payment penalties and expensive but worthless single premium credit insurance. But North Carolina is a better state for homeowners now. Inspired in part by Adams" campaigns against unscrupulous lenders and her hunger strike to support protective legislation, North Carolina passed in 1999 the nation"s first significant predatory lending law. The law is widely credited for protecting homeowners while still allowing ethical lenders to operate profitably. Adams urged Indiana lawmakers to follow North Carolina"s lead. There are two different predatory lending bills expected to be introduced in the General Assembly next month. A bill similar to North Carolina"s law is sponsored by House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. William Crawford (D-Indianapolis) and supported by consumer groups and housing advocates. A bill with much weaker restrictions is expected to receive the support of the lending industry. Adams urged the group attending the Access to Justice conference to push for the stronger consumer-supported bill. "Our law did exactly what it was supposed to do, run the worst predatory lenders out of North Carolina," she said. "You can accomplish that in Indiana, too." "Pay when you go," says "The Star" An Indianapolis Star executive has confirmed that the paper will soon begin selling classified advertising space for obituaries. "We are implementing a structure that allows people to add photos and details in The Star for a charge," said Brian Priester, vice president for market development. In a message left in response to a NUVO inquiry, Priester said The Star will continue to publish free obituaries even after paid obituaries are offered. However, the changes set to begin Jan. 7 will substantially shrink the content of free local obituaries. According to Priester, details commonly included now - including the deceased"s career, church and/or organization memberships and names of surviving family members - will no longer be part of non-paid obituaries. The new obituary policy is only the latest in many changes since Gannett took over operations at The Star in July 2000 ("Broken Trust," NUVO, April 5, 2001). At last count, a full 60 newsroom staffers have left the paper during Gannett"s tenure. Not turning their backs There were women who were natives of Ghana and Ethiopia. Students from Broad Ripple High School. HIV/AIDS activists from Indianapolis to Kenya. And several people who identified themselves only as concerned citizens. As one young man said by way of introduction, "I"m just a regular person, and I couldn"t turn my back on this." "This" is the AIDS crisis in Africa, which is killing 6,500 people every day. And these were just a few of an extraordinary group of 75-plus people who gathered last Thursday evening at St. Luke"s United Methodist Church on Indianapolis" Northside. The meeting was called in response to a whirlwind visit earlier this month by U2 singer Bono and a caravan of celebrities and Africans, all hoping to stir up local activism to counter the poverty and HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. By the looks of the first meeting, Bono succeeded. Organizers from the group DATA (Debt-AIDS-Trade-Africa) happily scrambled to copy extra materials for a crowd that doubled their expectation. Representatives from various groups - including churches, non-profit agencies and even a sports bar - pledged to direct nearly 500 phone calls and faxes to the White House this week. President Bush leaves for Africa in mid-January, and the Indianapolis group will ask him to kick off his trip by committing the U.S. to a significant contribution to fight HIV/AIDS. Phone numbers and e-mail addresses were exchanged, plans made to meet again to plan future activism. (Jan. 2 at 7 p.m., again at St. Luke"s.) Even with the variety of experience and ethnicity present, the group seemed to share a core motivation. "I just want to live my life without regret," said one young woman. "And I know if I didn"t take part in this effort, I would some day look back with regret." To contact the White House, call (202) 456-1111 or fax (202) 456-2461. For more information on DATA, checkwww.datadata.org
. Remembering the homelessMore than 3,500 people are homeless in Indianapolis each night, one-third of them children and youth. The magnitude of the problems facing Indianapolis" homeless population often goes unnoticed, except when incidents like the death of a homeless man in an abandoned building fire on Dec. 4 briefly make the news. This Friday, Dec. 20, at 1:30 p.m., Indianapolis residents will gather at Christ Church Cathedral on Monument Circle for the Homeless Persons" Memorial Day Service. The annual service foregrounds the struggles of the homeless and serves as a rallying point for concerned citizens. This year, the memorial will feature speeches from formerly homeless people, Gov. Frank O"Bannon and Mayor Bart Peterson, who is likely to discuss his "Blueprint to End Homelessness," set to go into effect in 2003. For more information, call CHIP, the Coalition for Homeless Prevention and Intervention, at (317) 630-0853. -Summer Wood