Something was wrong at St. Adalbert’s School and Church in Whiting. The school children were coughing and sneezing, unable to get through their lessons. Several went home sick. Church services were also interrupted by widespread coughing. There was, however, no mystery to what was causing this problem. Just days earlier, Federated Metals opened a plant about one city block from the school. Eighty years later that same plant is in the news in connection with environmental concerns, just as it was in 1939 when residents living near it rose up in anger.
The Federated Metals plant was built in 1938 at a cost of three-million dollars. It went into service in early 1939 and almost immediately it was accused of polluting the environment. Alarmed by what was happening to the students and parishioners of St. Adalbert, a protest quickly organized. John A. Tokarz headed the group, which went right to Hammond city officials for help. Dr. H.C. Groman, secretary of the Hammond Health Board responded. He gave Federated Metals sixty days to eliminate the obnoxious fumes and smoke from its plant. The “nuisance is injurious to the health of residents and children in vicinity of the plant,” Groman stated in a report to the Hammond City Council in March 1939.
Max Robbins, general manager of the plant, said sixty days was more than enough time to take care of the problem. “We can assure you,” Robbins told Dr. Groman, “we have spared no expense to install modern and latest developments that engineering has attained to entirely eliminate smoke or fume.”
One month later, though, there was no apparent change, except that residents living near the plant were getting angrier. “You can live in my house for rent free if you think you can stand the smoke nuisance,” Mary Niziolkeiwicz of Lakeview Avenue cried as she spoke to Robbins at a Hammond City Council meeting. “The home I built for $10,000 is almost wasted because of the acid from the plant.”
Dr. Michael Rafacz also spoke at the meeting. He said the firm needed to do something, because the present conditions were unbearable. Dr. Rafacz suggested the company build a taller smokestack to disperse the smoke and fumes, but Robbins defended the plant’s construction by saying it was in compliance with a city ordinance.
A month later, as the sixty-day deadline approached, Robbins changed his mind about the height of the smokestacks. He said a program to eliminate the problem was in the works and that taller smokestacks might be a part of the solution.
By summer of 1939 it had still not been resolved. The sixty-day deadline had passed. Neighboring residents now noticed that the lawns in front of their homes were dying. The weather was getting warmer, and in those days before air conditioning the only way to cool down the house was to open the windows. But anyone living near the plant would fill their homes with smoke and dust from the plant if they dared to open their windows. Hammond City Attorney Harry H. Stilley wanted the company to bring an immediate halt to the problem, but he gave it one more chance.
The company responded by calling in its own expert, Dr. George R. Hill, director of agriculture research of American Smelting and Refining, the parent company of Federated Metals. He said the answer to the problem was to build taller smokestacks, so that the fumes and dust are more dispersed and are blown away from the neighborhood of St. Adalbert. The company said it would build the smokestack without delay. In August, Plant Manager Robbins announced a decision to build a 300-foot smokestack. It would be one of the tallest in Northwest Indiana and cost $25,000, but it was going to take another 70 days to complete.
The city’s patience had run out. A week later, Hammond City Health Inspector Robert Prior obtained a criminal warrant for the arrest of company officials, charging them with maintaining a nuisance. The company’s plea that it needed another 70 days was not acceptable, Prior said. “Robertsdale residents will not tolerate the nuisance that long.” He added that as far as he could tell, “the company has not even started building the stack which is promised.”
As summer wound down, the case got slowed down in court. The company filed for a delay at a hearing attended by a large throng of Whiting and Robertsdale residents. The request for a delay was denied, but then the company requested a change of judges. Hammond attorney Nels Jacobson was chosen. The case finally went to trial in September, and the company requested more delays to prove that it had not been lax in implementing its plan to reduce the pollution.
When it resumed, Special Judge Jacobson ruled in favor of the company. He said there was conflicting testimony from witnesses, and it could not be established that Federated Metals was responsible for the irritants which neighbors of the plant, students and St. Adalbert parishioners complained about. If the residents wanted to pursue the case in civil court, company attorney M. Clyde Brown said, they were welcome to do so.
By early 1940, a year after the smoke was first noticed by residents near the plant, the taller smokestack was completed. Dr. Prior, the city health inspector, said the smokestack seemed to solve the problem. He said he received no further complaints about the smoke and fumes after it went up.
Over the years which followed, Federated Metals accumulated numerous environmental complaints. It sold the facility in 1983, but the environmental issues linger. Most recently, the Environmental Protection Agency began a $1.7-million cleanup of residential lots in early 2018, after tests revealed many were contaminated by lead emitted by the Federated Metals plant.