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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

We Need a Just Transition: a Conversation with Nancy Walter

This post was originally published in April 2022. Nancy Walter is part of Just Transition Northwest Indiana, a community-based environmental group working to, among other things, have the coal ash piles from Northern Indiana Public Service Corp.'s coal-fired electricity plant in Michigan City, IN removed completely. Part of their effort (along with other organizations) has been to convince the Environmental Protection Agency to close a regulatory loophole that allows the coal ash piles to remain. A draft EPA rule is due by the end of this week, May 5, with the final rule issued by May 6, 2024.

The climate is changing, and it requires us to change. But, at the risk of stating the obvious, change is hard. It’s hard enough when we choose to change… a job, a home, relationships. When circumstances require us to change, that can be even harder. Climate change, however, is forcing us to change, or as some would say, make a transition, whether we like it or not.

That transition needs to happen at the individual level, in how we get around, heat our homes, or feed ourselves. That transition, though, also needs to happen in society and the economy, with the resources we use and how we use them. There are few places in the Great Lakes Basin that face this question of transition like the area of northwest IN, where traditional heavy industry is mixed with towns and cities along the shore and with the sandy beaches of Indiana Dunes National Park.

A view along the shore of Lake Michigan, with Northern Indiana Public Service Corp.'s coal-fired electric plant in the distance - photo by Dan Robinson
A view along the shore of Lake Michigan, with Northern Indiana Public Service Corp.'s coal-fired electric plant in the distance - photo by Dan Robinson

Industry and Nature

As a lifelong resident of northwest Indiana, Deaconess Nancy Walter has had a front row seat to that transition. “My mother's family emigrated from Eastern Europe for the jobs that were provided by the industry along the Lake,” she recounted. “Whiting (IN) was basically, at that time, it was a Standard Oil Company town. So all of my uncles on that side of the family were there or at one of the mills. My father was employed by the railroads, and of course with Chicago being a railroad hub and a shipping hub, because of the closeness of the Lake, that side of it has certainly been important in supporting me.”

“But yet the natural side of it, you talked about the Dunes being surrounded by the mills, which they are,” she added. “I'm grateful to Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois and the Save the Dunes group that worked tirelessly to get the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and now National Park, to be preserved, because otherwise it very well would have been developed. So to have that gem, with such a diverse ecosystem, right in the middle of all the industry. It's really important that we've preserved something of what the lakeshore looked like before the industries came.”

“Everything as Interconnected”

As an adult in northwest Indiana, Walter worked for 30 years in the court system. After retiring, she completed a formation program to become a Deaconess in the Lutheran Christian tradition, serving her congregation by providing a variety of pastoral services. After retiring from that role, she continues to serve her congregation as a volunteer, and her efforts now have been focused on anti-racism work, voting rights and voter education, and environmental justice.

Guiding all her work is a certain orientation in her spirituality. “I lean toward Celtic spirituality, and Celtic spirituality sees everything as interconnected. Other spiritualities see, you know, humans up on top, everything else underneath,” she said. “In other words, humans have dominion, have control over everything, the animals, the flora, the fauna. But Celtic spirituality, seeing everything as interconnected. So rather than being top down, it's a web, so that we are connected to all that lives. So we are not apart from nature. We are a part of nature.”

We Need a Just Transition

If everything is connected like a web, then when one strand of the web changes, it affects all the other strands, for good or for ill. To be for good, change requires all these different, interconnected parts to work together, even industry and ecosystems. “Nature was kind of a second tier,” Walter said. “We were concerned about it, but we were more concerned with the economy and the jobs that come from them. And if nature got hurt, well, you know, that was just the price of doing business. But, I think there's been a shift in that now. It's much more important to preserve the natural areas and to hold industry accountable when they do damage to them. So, there's a partnership, I think, but there's also a strong accountability component there, where we hold the industries accountable to be a good partner, to be a part of that web.”

As we try to take care of that web that we all share, the U.S. and world economies are undergoing tremendous transition because of climate change, pollution, and an energy system that disproportionately harms communities of color. To help facilitate that transition, Walter volunteers with one local group that is trying to hold industry accountable for being a good partner - Just Transition Northwest Indiana (NWI).

Just Transition NWI originally formed in 2020 and part of its original mission has been to make sure the local investor-owned utility, Northern Indiana Public Service Corp. (NIPSCO) takes care of the coal ash waste at its power generation plant in Michigan City. The plant is scheduled to close sometime between 2026 and 2028, and the group wants to make sure that NIPSCO does a clean closure. According to Walter, that means, “rather than just capping the ponds and leaving the material in place, they remove it entirely.” That ash, according to Just Transition NWI is “poisoning the local water supply, degrading air quality, and threatening Lake Michigan.”

For the organization, a just transition also includes building “solidarity between communities and workers impacted by the NIPSCO energy transition in Northwest Indiana and beyond to create long-term, community-centered and worker-centered solutions.”

The organization goes on to say that:

The principle of just transition is that a healthy economy and a clean environment can and should co-exist. The process for achieving this vision should be a fair one that should not cost workers or community residents their health, environment, jobs, or economic assets. Any losses should be fairly compensated. And the practice of just transition means that the people who are most affected by pollution – the frontline workers and the fenceline communities should be in the leadership of crafting policy solutions. (Just Transition Alliance)

Just Transition NWI recently held a Facebook event to educate the public on the importance of having NIPSCO clean up the coal ash waste (link to the video here), emphasizing the negative impacts on both the health of Lake Michigan and the health of the people living in the area, particularly those close to the plant and pits. During the event they debuted a wonderful short video that also highlights the importance of removing the coal ash waste:

“That's injustice. That's environmental racism.”

The neighborhoods near NIPSCO’s power plant that formerly were populated by European immigrants are now, according to Walter, home to Black and LatinX communities as well as households living on low incomes. These frontline communities are often located near fossil-fuel generation plants and the resulting pollution. “There are those,” Walter added, “who are perfectly okay with that. They think that's just fine. Well, we look at that and say that's injustice. That's environmental racism and environmental classism.”

Walter talked about the stories and leadership of the people who are living with “ash dust all around their house, that they're constantly having to clean up. They talk about asthma. They talk about just the feeling that their neighborhood has been ignored, and that these big, you know, these big powerful people are going to do exactly what they want to do, and there's nothing they can do about it. Just that feeling and their passion,” she said. “They want to become advocates, they want to work, but they just don't know quite how to go about it. So I think what Just Transition (NWI) does is to help educate them and give them the tools.”

“My Elevator Sermon”

Rev. Kimberly Williams, President of the Northwestern Indiana Ministers’ Conference, spoke as a member of the panel for Just Transition NWI’s Facebook Event. She said that the involvement of the Conference and all the ministers highlights the importance of having the churches engaged in the effort to remove the coal ash waste. As Williams said, the Conference is made up of many different denominations, so they reach “a population of people who (otherwise) may never hear about this.”

Still, Walter said, not all Christians are on-board with a perspective that emphasizes the importance of ecosystems as God’s creation. “I've seen folks,” she said, “who call themselves Christian, and they are. I have no doubt that they are. But their attitude is kind of, well, you know, we were given this planet, and we were given dominion over it. And so we can do whatever we want with it.”

“That, to me, is a poor reading of what's intended,” she continued. “It says in Genesis that we were given the garden to care for it. To me, it's never been about doing whatever you want. It's about taking care of this wonderful gift that we've been given. I mean, when you consider, even in spring, as you see things start to bloom and the beauty of the Lake and all the seasons. That, to me, is just such a tremendous gift.”

I asked Walter what she would say if she were to preach a quick sermon to her congregation about Lake Michigan and our relationship with God. “I’d say that water has been an important part of our story with God, and is woven all through it. I'd remind them of their baptismal promises made with water, that water is a symbol that they are claimed by God,” she answered. “I’d talk about how just like God, just kind of assuming God is there, that water is something we just assume is going to be there. You turn on the tap. You start the washing machine. Or you drive by the Lake, and there's the Lake, and there's people swimming and enjoying it. See crops being watered. We take that for granted so easily and not realizing what a part we play in how important it is. Just steward that gift of water. That's my elevator sermon.”

If you’d like to let NIPSCO, the Indiana Dept. of Environmental Management, and the EPA know the importance of cleaning up the coal ash waste at the Michigan City plant, you can sign Just Transition NWI’s on-line petition here.

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