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Indiana: Still toxic after all these years

Dec 28, 2008

Link to this column in the Bloomington Alternative

A much-needed recovery period from knee surgery, coupled with the holiday season, left little time for working anywhere but on the computer these past two weeks. No interviews, few e-mails, mostly surfing government Web pages. And the effort produced an alarming deja vu.

While researching a story for NUVO readers in Indianapolis on the connection between autism and toxic chemicals, I returned to territory familiar from my stint as an environmental writer at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) from 1996-2000. I spent hours analyzing Indiana's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), a gauge for how polluted Indiana or any other state is.

This Community-Right-to-Know tool is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) database through which polluters quantify their annual releases of "nearly" 650 chemicals into the nation's air, water and land, according to the TRI Program Fact Sheet.

Drawing upon my years writing about TRI at IDEM, and having already learned that Indiana has a significantly higher than average incidence of children with autism, I assumed from the get-go that the state remains one of the nation's most toxic.

***

For perspective, my favorite description of TRI data, one that I couldn't write while I worked for IDEM, came from a highly respected IDEM official in the late 90s -- "self-reported numbers by bad actors."

EPA has 80,000 synthetic, industrial chemicals registered for commercial use in the United States. Regulated industries and facilities, including manufacturing, coal mining and electric utilities, must report data on only 650 of them. For TRI purposes, chemicals are released into the environment primarily through disposal in landfills, injection into underground wells and escape into the air, land and water.

Hoosier industries, utilities and government facilities released 266 million pounds of TRI chemicals in 2006, the last year for which data is available.

Using their numbers, Indiana polluters are No. 3 in the country when it comes to toxic pollution. Only Alaska, with 18 times the land mass, and Ohio, with 181 percent the population, report more TRI releases than Indiana.

***

What will probably surprise many is that Indiana's most toxic county is Spencer, otherwise known as Abe Lincoln's childhood home, where his mother died and is buried. This Ohio River county also boasts a Holiday World amusement park in a town called Santa Claus.

Just east of Evansville in Southwest Indiana, Spencer County's economy is built on two world-class polluters -- AK Steel and American Electric Power (AEP). AK Steel, a modern steel plant, and AEP, an antiquated, coal-fired electric power plant, produce more than twice the pollution of the environmentally infamous Lake County, in Northwest Indiana.

When I wrote for IDEM, power plant emissions were not reported to the TRI database. Today, four of the top five polluting counties in the state -- Spencer, Gibson, Warrick and Pike -- are in King Coal counties surrounding Evansville.

AEP and AK Steel reported combined releases of 36.8 million pounds of TRI chemicals in 2006. All Lake County industries combined reported only 15.3 million pounds.

Two Monroe County industries -- Cook Inc. in Ellettsville and GEA BPO LLC at 301 N. Curry Pike -- reported 305,187 pounds.

***

Lead, arsenic, toluene and mercury are among the TRI chemicals that studies I've read in the past couple months say could cause brain damage leading to developmental disorders like autism.

In 2006, Indiana facilities released into the environment 7.8 million pounds of lead and lead compounds, 2.8 million pounds of toluene and 811,884 pounds of arsenic and arsenic compounds, according to the TRI database.

The 10,071 pounds of mercury and mercury compounds released that year ranks the state 17th in the nation. More than a third of these releases were from coal-fired, Southwest Indiana electric power plants.

Mercury is released into the air during combustion at coal plants and is present in the ash that must be disposed of (released) after burning.

"Mercury emissions from power plants are considered the largest (man-made) source of mercury released to the atmosphere," according to a 2007 paper titled "Mercury Content of Indiana Coals" from the Indiana Geological Survey.

Lead and arsenic are also byproducts of coal combustion.

***

During Democratic Gov. Frank O'Bannon's first term, I worked closely with IDEM's Office of Pollution Prevention and Technical Assistance (OPPTA), which oversaw Indiana's TRI data. And when the numbers came out each year, it was a big deal. Such data are, as IDEM officials used to say, benchmarks against which progress can be measured.

Well, the most recent TRI data suggests Indiana's benchmarks would be more appropriately called never-look-back marks.

When O'Bannon was elected to replace fellow Democrat Gov. Evan Bayh in 1996, Indiana reported 95 million pounds of TRI chemical releases into the environment. When 16 years of Democratic reign ended with the election of Republican Mitch Daniels in 2004, the state reported releases of 136 million pounds, a 141 percent increase in eight years.

After only two years with Republican Daniels in charge, TRI releases in Indiana grew to a 15-year high in 2006 -- 145 million pounds.

Indiana's autism rate among children in Indiana schools increased 13 percent between 2007 and 2008.

Steven Higgs

     
     

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