EAST CHICAGO, Ind. — Instead of holding a public hearing to address environmental concerns around an oil refinery power outage Thursday, East Chicago Central High School (ECCHS) cancelled the meeting unexpectedly, leaving residents and Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) officials alike, lost and confused.
Residents who live near the BP oil refinery in Whiting intended to gather for a public hearing at the high school Thursday night, where the agenda included renewing BP’s air permit. IDEM officials said they also planned to hear comment from the public, and provide answers to ongoing efforts surrounding a power outage that happened at the whiting oil refinery last Thursday.
That power outage last week led to the evacuation of more than 1,000 BP employees, and the need to burn off product by flaring all of the stacks on site in order to avoid a potential explosion.
“We know this is cancer alley right through here,” said Thomas Frank, a local community activist. “We also know we have the highest infant mortality rate in the state of Indiana. We have a lot of concerns.”
The meeting was supposed to start at 6 p.m. local time, but an ECCHS employee told the media assembled they weren’t allowed inside.
School employees then turned off the lights inside the lobby, at which point media learned the meeting was cancelled.
“I think we all understand the frustration people have out here,” said Allen Carter, IDEM communications manager. “We came here with the intention of holding a public meeting that included members of the media. The school made the decision they were uncomfortable with that and decided they wanted to terminate the meeting.”
Dozens of residents who turned out for the meeting with picket signs and other poster boards said they felt left out of the process and were worried about their health.
“We want to know what they’re doing for monitoring our air for our kids,” said Monica Guzman, East Chicago 1st District council member. “For the school system to not open the doors so they can speak … We just want answers.”
Carter echoed Guzman’s sentiments, and expressed disappointment the meeting did not come to fruition.
“Believe me when I say this is far from convenient,” Carter said. “Our agency did not want to come up here and drive up, put out notifications to the community to show up, and have people leave disappointed.”
The deadline for public comment on the renewal of BP’s air permit was supposed to end Monday, Feb. 12. After the meeting was cancelled, an IDEM spokesperson said they will extend the deadline and reschedule the meeting at a different location.