Indiana ranks near bottom in environmental issues
Reams of data, 1 conclusion for Indiana: At the bottom
By Mark Alesia, Heather Gillers and Tim Evans
A colorful mural at the state agency in charge of protecting Indiana's environment depicts images of serene nature alongside productive industry. It is an ideal green vision.
Yet on Earth Day, celebrated today in Indianapolis and around the world, experts say Indiana is far from that ideal -- further than almost every other state.
Environmental comparisons can be difficult because of oceans of complex data generated and evaluated in different ways. But it seems that no matter who is compiling the survey -- or what aspect of the environment is being measured -- Indiana consistently ranks near the bottom.
» Forbes.com ranked Indiana 49th out of 50 states in its 2007 "America's Greenest States" survey. Only West Virginia fared worse.
» Indianapolis ranked 99th out of 100 metropolitan areas per capita in a 2008 Brookings Institution report on environmentally harmful carbon emissions from transportation and energy. Only Lexington, Ky., was worse.
» According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Indiana had the highest amount of toxic discharges to bodies of water among all states in 2007 -- more than 11 percent of the nation's total.
» BioCycle, a composting and recycling publication, reported in December that Indiana produces more garbage per capita than any other state in the nation.
Advocates for the environment say a strong business lobby and a political culture that values jobs over the environment has led to a loose regulatory climate. State officials, however, insist they are doing a good job despite the mountain of evidence that suggests otherwise.
"People should be ashamed of our record," said Jeff Stant, former executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council who now works with the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project.
"It doesn't have to be this way. People should be holding their political leaders accountable. That should be the message on Earth Day: Where is the leadership?"
Indiana's top environmental officer, Thomas W. Easterly, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, said he doesn't put much stock in such rankings because of outdated numbers and murky methodology.
But it's hard to dismiss the volume of evidence -- and some say it's easy to understand why Indiana struggles to go green.
Hoosiers for decades have looked suspiciously at environmental regulation, viewing it as an overstated liberal concern that will lead to tax increases and lost jobs.
So the tendency has been to choose business-friendly options.
One important example is coal. Unlike neighboring Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and 27 other states, Indiana does not have a state policy that requires electricity providers to obtain a minimum percentage of their power from renewable energy resources like wind and solar.
Absent any such requirement, Indiana relies on coal to generate more than 90 percent of the state's electricity. Coal is lamented by environmentalists. But it's abundant and cheap, and thus good for business.
"A critically important part of our economic development and competitiveness are our low electric rates," said John Clark, the former director of Indiana's Office of Energy Development under Gov. Mitch Daniels.
State Rep. Ryan Dvorak, D-South Bend, blames much of Indiana's environmental woes on "special-interest politics."
"The state has a very strong coalition of business and manufacturing groups that works very heavily on environmental issues, and they have a bloc of votes that make it difficult to enact any reforms," said Dvorak, chairman of the House Environmental Affairs Committee.
He also pointed to "a very loose regulatory environment" at IDEM, whose responsibilities include issuing permits to businesses for air emissions and wastewater discharges.
Case in point, environmental organizations argue, is IDEM's handling of permits in 2007 for an expansion of the BP Refinery in Whiting.
Howard A. Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Midwest's leading environmental advocacy organization, said IDEM missed an opportunity to push for stronger emission requirements.
"Indiana is moving completely out of step from where the rest of the world is going," Lerner said of the state's approach to the expansion project.
"At best, IDEM has missed opportunities for environmental progress. In our opinion, in some cases, IDEM has not done its job adequately in terms of protecting the environment. If Indiana doesn't step up, it is going to lose growth, development and people to other places."
Gov. Mitch Daniels' office declined to comment for this story. Easterly, who previously was an environmental official for Bethlehem Steel and utility company NiSource, disagreed that his office is lenient with business.
He said IDEM fulfills its regulatory responsibilities and "meets and often exceeds U.S. EPA requirements and goals."
Asked how he would compare Indiana's environment to other states, Easterly began by saying some states benefit from mountainous areas that are lightly inhabited or uninhabited and thus "less human-affected."
"But for places where people live, we're in pretty good shape," Easterly said. There's "air that's healthy, water that's healthy for the uses you want it used for and land where you can grow crops and have your children play.
"Yes, we have industrial areas, historical ones, where you wouldn't want your children playing in the dirt, and we have programs to prevent that."
Others say the state could -- and should -- do more.
"We're not an environmental leader," said Bowden Quinn, conservation program coordinator of the Sierra Club Hoosier Chapter. "Decades ago, we were. We were the first state to prohibit phosphorous from laundry detergents. We kept nuclear powers plants out of the state.
"Starting sometime in the '90s, we lost our motivation. We started thinking too much about jobs and the economy and not so much about the environment. That's a false dichotomy."
Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said it's obviously important for state government to concern itself with attracting business.
But, he added, it shouldn't be the priority "for an environmental protection agency, particularly in a state that ranks near the bottom in environment."
IDEM and others point to accomplishments. They cite the entire state meeting ozone standards last year and obtaining legal agreements from most of the places in Indiana required to address pollutants in sewer overflows. They also mention the huge new "wind farm" in Benton County.
Nonetheless, critics say, Indiana is losing ground in some environmental areas. They cite the elimination of recycling and conservation grants and recent changes in IDEM monitoring programs -- an issue of particular concern to Sue Ferguson, Indianapolis.
Two or three times a week, Ferguson makes her Westside backyard off-limits to her grandchildren and her young nephew and niece. She worries about the cause of a pungent odor, which she believes comes from a lead smelting plant near her home.
"It's strong, kind of a burning smell," she said. "We don't even go outside when it's like that."
The Indianapolis Office of Environmental Services caught at least one improper practice at the plant almost every year since Ferguson moved to her home in 2002.
But that office stopped keeping an eye on Ferguson's neighborhood in March, after the state decided to take over environmental monitoring duties from Indianapolis and five other local environmental agencies (along with the more than $2 million in federal and other funds those agencies used to do those jobs).
IDEM said the reason for the changes is greater efficiency and savings. Easterly said his agency is monitoring the areas just as carefully as local officials did.
Others are not so sure. The EPA is still trying to figure out whether Indiana's reorganized air-quality arm can enforce federal policy to its satisfaction.
The state plans to inspect some air pollution sources every other year or even every five years, depending on the site. Some local authorities said they did inspections annually.
"I just think that that's awful that they have taken money away from that," Ferguson said. "It doesn't seem to be a priority."
Nor does recycling. Though it is an important staple of the green movement, recycling is perhaps the state's most striking failure.
In 1996, legislators codified in state law a goal of reducing the amount of waste deposited in Indiana landfills by half within five years. Instead, the amount of garbage produced by Hoosiers and dumped in Indiana grew -- by 10 percent -- reaching nearly 12 million tons in 2007.
Unlike some states where residential recycling programs are encouraged -- even free -- they are still rare in Indiana. Nor does Indiana have a "bottle bill" that would require a small deposit for drink containers returned to merchants and discourage Hoosiers from sending millions of bottles and cans to landfills.
Instead, the state makes it relatively painless to dump waste in Indiana. Waste haulers in Ohio pay a state fee of $3.50 per ton of municipal solid waste dumped in landfills in that state, and the governor there has proposed a $1.25 per ton increase. In Indiana, haulers pay a state fee of only 50 cents per ton.
Hard to sell
For Hoosiers, environmentalism can be a tough sell.
In California, there's an environmental culture. Even in Chicago, there's a "bike culture" and public transportation, including "the el," is ingrained in the public consciousness, Kharbanda noted.
Not so in Indiana.
James H. Madison, a professor of history at Indiana University and author of the book "The Indiana Way," said Hoosiers have always been reluctant to accept regulation and government intervention. They also have enjoyed a long history of low taxes and energy costs, and generally dislike anything that will cost more or that seems to slow economic growth.
"The real question to me," Madison said, "is how informed are Hoosiers about environmental issues."
Still, there is optimism for a green future. Just as the fear over lost jobs might have stymied some efforts in the past, the hope of attracting them might spur a greener Indiana.
Some federal programs, including part of the new stimulus bill designed to create jobs, have green requirements.
Also, if the automotive industry is to rebound, it might be through the manufacturing of hybrid or electric vehicles.
But even amid such promise, Indiana has work to do.
A few months ago, Denver-based Luminous Electronics Recycling was about to submit an application for about a half-million dollars' worth of grants and low-interest loans offered by IDEM to attract environmentally friendly companies.
"We were definitely moving there," said Steve Fulberth, about his television and computer recycling business that would employ about 30 people. But, now, "We need to look at some other options."
Why? Because IDEM suspended the program. It wanted to be fiscally responsible.
INDIANA'S TOP THREE ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES
1. DWINDLING OPEN SPACE, HABITATS
Indiana's 4 percent of publicly owned land is among the lowest in the country. He includes opposition to the I-69 expansion in this category, not because he's against roads but because of what he says is the potential to destroy 2,000 acres of forest.
2. TOXIC EMISSIONS
Indiana is third in the nation in toxic emissions, including coal ash and mercury, according to EPA data for 2007.
3. CARBON FOOTPRINT
Kharbanda rejects the idea of "clean coal" technology, calling it cleaner coal, and says the costs are "dramatically understated." He thinks priority should go to alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar.