Soul Power Program Manager Donnita Scully stands in front of the NAACP LaPorte County office in Michigan City. The office sits just a few blocks from the NIPSCO Generating Station tower, visible in the background.  Molly DeVore, The Times
Soul Power Program Manager Donnita Scully stands in front of the NAACP LaPorte County office in Michigan City. The office sits just a few blocks from the NIPSCO Generating Station tower, visible in the background. Molly DeVore, The Times
MICHIGAN CITY — Come July, Veronica Adams will have worked in the steel mills for 25 years. Though she enjoys her job as senior clerical technician at Cleveland-Cliffs, Adams wanted to add another skill to her arsenal — solar panel installation.

Three days a week, for two weeks, Adams would wake up at 4:30 a.m., go to work at the mill, come home and rest for an hour, then pick up her son before they both headed to Ivy Tech Valparaiso for a solar installation class.

“I am always about continuing education and learning because industry is always evolving. ... When there is an opportunity to learn, I am going to take it," Adams said, adding that "it always helps when it's free.”

Adams and her son Anthony Cook Jr. were two of the students the NAACP LaPorte County sponsored as part of its Soul Power Project. At the end of the class, both Adams and Cook received solar helper certifications, an in-demand position that starts at $15.75 an hour and jumps to $31 an hour after 12 months of experience.

Cook is using his new skills to pursue a career in solar. For Adams, the only "seasoned mom" in the class, the course was a source of inspiration.

"It was an opportunity to bond and learn and build with my son as well as with the other young men in the class,” Adams said. “It was very impactful for me just to see them so eager to learn."

Because solar "is the wave of the future," those graduates will also be able to find work across the county, Adams said.

Starting in January 2022, the Soul Power Project sponsors students taking solar helper certification classes. Soul Power pays for students' Uber rides to the class, and all graduates receive a $200 stipend.

So far Soul Power has sponsored 12 students throughout three classes. Before the end of the year, the organization plans on sponsoring 24 more, Soul Power Project Manager Donnita Scully said. Classes are held at night to make the program accessible to students who also work full-time.

Soul Power works closely with WorkOne Northern Indiana and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 531 to make sure students find high-paying union jobs that offer full benefits upon graduation.

"This program automatically enters graduates into the middle class," Scully said.

A just transition

While classes are open to anyone over 18, Scully said Soul Power is especially focused on working with low-income communities of color — those most impacted by decades of heavy industry. She specifically promotes Soul Power in Michigan City and Gary, both lakeshore cities defined by early industrialization.

Since 1931, a coal-fired generating station has sat on the edge of the Michigan City shoreline. Owned by the Northern Indiana Public Service Co., the station is often recognized by its notable hyperboloid cooling tower.

In 2018, NIPSCO announced it would be retiring the station as part of the company's greater efforts to decarbonize electric generation. The Merrillville-based utility currently plans on retiring the station between 2026 and 2028. At the same time, NIPSCO will be shifting to wind, battery and solar-powered energy sources.

However, some local organizations fear NIPSCO's retirement will leave the area vulnerable to more contamination. To comply with federal regulations, NIPSCO must clean up its five coal ash ponds by next year.

Coal ash, a material left over after coal is burned to generate electricity, contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic that pose a potential threat to the air and water, including sources of drinking water, if not properly managed. NIPSCO has said they will remove the ash filling the ponds. However, the legacy ash that was disposed of at the site as "fill" between 1932 and 1972, will not be touched.

The only barrier between the fill and Lake Michigan is a steel seawall.

Just Transition Northwest Indiana, a nonprofit established in 2020, says the seawall is aging and could give way to a massive spill any day. Just Transition has launched a "Protect Lake Michigan Campaign," demanding NIPSCO cleanup the estimated 2 million tons of fill.

A 2021 study published by Earthjustice states that a "clean closure," which would include cleaning up the fill, would create more jobs as well.

Susan Thomas, director of legislation at Just Transition, said part of the organization's mission is to dispel “the false narrative that it is either jobs or the environment.” Just Transition has been working with Soul Power, promoting education around the green economy.

Green jobs

NIPSCO's plans to decarbonize show that Northwest Indiana is on the verge of an economic shift, Scully said, adding that the transition cannot be just and equitable if workers are not brought to the table.

Northwest Indiana has long been known for heavy industry, but as the green economy continues to grow, workers may need to adapt and learn new skills.

A 5,000-acre solar project is currently underway in Jasper County. Called Dunns Bridge Solar, NIPSCO plans on buying the solar array once it is completed.

Several of Soul Power's graduates are currently working on the Dunns Bridge project. Scully said it is important that the individuals who have been disproportionately impacted by heavy industry are included in the renewable energy job market.

"If you look at the (NIPSCO) tower that's here in Michigan City, the neighborhood surrounding it is predominantly black. They are the ones that are most impacted by the coal ash." Scully said. "We want to look at these impacted low-income communities of color ... and help these residents access employment that improves their quality of life."

Soul Power also focuses on finding jobs for individuals who have been incarcerated in an effort to reduce recidivism.

Right now, Scully is going after more grant funding in the hopes that Soul Power will be able to buy or lease a van to get graduates to job sites. She would also like to launch a solar panel installer certification program, a position that requires more training than a solar panel helper.

Despite the long hours Adams and her son had to put in — working and taking care of their families while taking the Soul Power class — both felt it was worth it.

“You can take that certification anywhere because solar is the future," Adams said, adding that her son's certificate is now proudly displayed on his wall.

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