Indiana shorelineNorthwest Indiana’s Lake Michigan shoreline is characterized by both a national park unit and intensive industrialization, creating fertile ground for Gitte Laasby’s enterprising journalism.

During the last year, three newspaper reporters covering environmental and Great Lakes matters full-time have left the beat as their former homes downsize.  Only a handful of such reporters remain. The youngest and most enterprising is Gitte Laasby of the Post-Tribune in Merrillville, Indiana.

A native of Denmark and a 2004 master’s graduate of the Michigan State University School of Journalism – known for its outstanding Knight Center for Environmental Journalism – Laasby broke a 2007 story about a proposed ammonia dumping increase by the local BP refinery into Lake Michigan.  Picked up by Chicago and eventually Great Lakes regional media, the story stirred up public outrage.  Ultimately, BP promised not to increase its discharge. More recently, Laasby broke a story about a pile of contaminated material a few hundred yards from Lake Michigan at what is now the ArcelorMittal steel facility at Burns Harbor.  “Easterly’s pile” was nicknamed for the-then superintendent of environmental affairs at the company when it was Bethlehem Steel. Thomas Easterly is now the commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

There are plenty of opportunities for Laasby to unearth similar stories in northwest Indiana.
Although only about 45 miles in length, the state’s Lake Michigan shoreline begins not far east of Chicago and has been heavily industrialized for a century. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and state park are anchored in the midst of steel plants, many now closed, coal fired power plants and other pollution sources. The pollution history of the region has spawned an active citizenry of environmental advocates.

Following Laasby’s Twitter feed is a worthwhile hobby for anyone interested in serious, high-quality Great Lakes journalism.

We recently asked Laasby some questions about her work and the environmental issues of northwest Indiana.

Q.  How do you see your role as one of the last full-time environmental newspaper reporters in the Great Lakes region?  Do you see yourself as a watchdog?  Is the environment something you asked to report on originally or was it something you were assigned to do?

A.  I strongly believe my role is to be a watchdog.  That’s what I see as my calling in general, regardlessof the capacity or specific beat.  It requires a lot of expertise and technical knowledge with regulations, terminology and other matters to report on the environmental beat, which makes it hard for newcomers to cover and hard for a general assignment reporter to dive into if you have an immediate deadline and limited time to do your research.

At the same time, new environmental concerns constantly seem to appear – from climate change to endocrine disruptors and health effects of various pollutants we never even thought heard of just a decade ago.  So it’s a crucial time to have people with environmental knowledge who can help educate the public on the significance of those issues and how it impacts their lives.

I think too many people (and reporters) tend to believe what the government or companies say without question instead of digging into issues to find out the truth. In my experience, the devil’s in the details, and everyone tends to frame things to their own advantage.  Sometimes, you think someone gives you a full answer, but with enough background knowledge, you realize they’re not, or they leave out the most important part.  I consider it my job to do that research, ask those questions and find the truth for people.  It’s not my job to tell them what to think.

Q.  What are the major environmental issues of note in northwest Indiana?  What do you think are the most important stories you’ve covered?

My impression is that for many years, residents of Northwest Indiana accepted pollution as a necessary tradeoff for jobs and economic growth.  When the snow turned orange in the winter, it was a good sign because it meant the mills were doing well.  Sometimes, polluters chose short cuts, and I think it’s important to make sure everything happens in accordance with the law now that we know better.

The steel mills (what is now U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal) started before environmental regulations like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act even existed.  That means one of our biggest challenges is to deal with legacy issues.  One example is cleaning up the Calumet River, the only river in the country that still has all 14 possible impairments, according to the EPA.

Climate change and energy seem to be emerging issues, especially because of our coal dependence and the BP Whiting refinery and its economic significance for the region.  Indiana is one of the fastest-growing wind power produces in the nation, and I imagine we’ll see more attention on renewable energy issues and sustainability in the coming years.

Q.  How do you find stories like the BP refinery issue?

A.  First, I have great sources and the occasional anonymous tipster or whistleblower, who are key for me in keeping me up on various issues.

I also don’t think people have traditionally paid much attention to air and water permits here from an environmental standpoint, but I think they’re important because they set the legal standard for the level of pollution we’ll accept from a facility, and the permit limits indicate how serious we are about not adding to problems we already have, but still allowing businesses to thrive.  I’ve focused quite a bit on permits in the hope that people realize pollution is allowed in certain quantities, and if they’re unhappy about the consequences of this – not being able to fish in the Grand Calumet, beach closures at Lake Michigan, or sniffing a smell like rotten eggs in Gary), you can make a difference by speaking up on permits or weighing in when state officials or Congress make rules and laws.

In terms of attention, the BP story on the proposed wastewater permit has generated the most.  It led to tens of thousands of Great Lakes citizens signing petitions to oppose the permit, Congress passing a resolution against it, and stakeholders now revamping the state’s rules on when companies can discharge more pollution.

Q.  What about bloggers and other “new media”?  Are they assuming a larger role in tracking environmental issues and what are the good and bad consequences of that?

A.  As fewer beat writers are left in traditional media, I think bloggers will play an increasingly larger role in tracking those issues.  I think bloggers can help traditional journalists like myself stay in touch with what our readers are really concerned about and want us to address.  My main issue with bloggers is that they usually have an agenda they want to push, which makes it hard for them to see opposing views or acknowledging that the world isn’t black and white. Traditional journalists were educated to present more than one view and live up to certain standards.

Q.  What’s the good news about the environment in northwest Indiana?

A.  I think one notable entity on the environmental front is Valparaiso-based Legal Aid Foundation of Indiana, a not-for-profit one-person legal agency led by Kim Ferraro.  She helps regular citizens, who can’t afford to hire a regular lawyer, get their environmental grievances addressed.

I’m hesitant to single out a particular business but a lot of businesses and municipalities in northwest Indiana are getting more environmentally conscious and concerned about sustainability and are taking the lead on those issues.  A local electrical union is building Lake County’s first LEED-certified building.  Various municipalities are putting up green roofs, building rain gardens, installing solar panels and even considering windmills. The next few years will be an exciting time.

Two of Laasby’s recent stories:

Indiana wastewater treatment plants flushed more than 6.5 billion gallons of partially treated sewage into Lake Michigan and tributaries in 2009. Much of that ended up on the shores of area beaches and in Lake Michigan, which supplies drinking water to the region.,new-cso0530.article

Agents from state and federal agencies raided the Michigan City Sanitary District looking for evidence of environmental crimes.,new-mcraid0604.article

shoreline image from Medio-Core Chicago