The Ohio Valley's toxic kids 

Robert Owen would rise up from his grave in righteous indignation if he knew what has happened to the kids in his adopted Indiana home of New Harmony. The 19th-century visionary established a utopian settlement there in 1825, to establish "a model community where education and social equality would flourish," as the University of Southern Indiana's Historic New Harmony Web page puts it.

But the type of education that has blossomed on the banks of the Wabash can't possibly be what Owen envisioned.

At a disturbingly high rate, students categorized as needing special education services are directly downwind of mercury-emitting, major power plants that have gone essentially uncontrolled for decades.

According to data from the Indiana Department of Education (DoE), 27 percent of the 916 students in the New Harmony Town and Township School Corporation received special education services during the 2008-09 school year. More than one in four have disabilities, disorders and conditions that negatively impact their educational performance in the traditional classroom, as determined by Indiana law.

But while tiny New Harmony's percentage of special education students is staggering and could be written off for its statistically small size, it's not that far out of line with the Indiana side of the Ohio River Valley. The nearby Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation is the state's third largest, and 22 percent of its students receive special education services.

Across the Hoosier watershed, from New Harmony to Lawrenceburg, 41 public school districts in 19 counties serve 121,800 students. Exactly one in five — 20 percent — are in special education.

The statewide average was 17.5 percent in 2008-09.

The trends are stark

Dawn McGrath, coordinator of special education for the DoE, and other special education officials acknowledge that the diagnostic processes called for in the state's Special Education Rules have some subjectivity built into them. Diagnoses ultimately are team decisions that typically involve psychologists, school officials and parents.

"It's a case-conference decision, one student at a time, based on the people who are involved with the student," she said. "So, to the extent possible, we like to think that there is some consistency. But it's not like a bright line, like a score on a test."

Regardless of diagnostic variations from district to district, the overall trends of special education in New Harmony, Evansville, the Ohio River Valley and the state of Indiana over the past decade are stark.

On Dec. 1, 1999, 15.3 percent of students statewide received special education services. A decade later, the percentage had jumped to 17.5. The rate of increase was even higher in Evansville, where it grew from 18.8 to 22.1 percent.

The trend lines show steady, yearly increases locally and statewide between 1997 and 2007, when Evansville's peaked at 22.6 percent. The last two years have shown slight annual declines.

The growth has come in two categories: Autism Spectrum Disorder and Other Health Impaired, which across the state grew 500 percent and 600 percent, respectively, in that decade. Each has increased year to year, with no fall off.

An "environmental sacrifice zone"

Veteran environmental activist John Blair, president of the Evansville-based group Valley Watch, has monitored pollution and human health in the Ohio River Valley since the 1970s. He often refers to the region as an "environmental sacrifice zone," and for him the cause-effect is as obvious as the polluted haze that permeates the city in summer.

Spencer County, two counties east of Evansville, has two industries — AK Steel and the Rockport Power Plant — that release more toxics than all the industries in 10 major American cities combined, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, he said during an interview in November, pulling out government documents to buttress the claim.

According to the EPA Toxic Release Inventory data, industries in Posey County, where New Harmony is located, reported 2.97 million pounds of toxic chemicals released into the environment in 2008. Posey County's population at the time was 26,209, according to the U.S. Census.

"The Ohio Valley has attracted lots of large industrial facilities that put huge levels of toxic and other pollutants out that are known to impact development," Blair said.

Foremost among those is mercury, a powerful neurotoxin and one of the most-studied and best understood of the 80,000 industrial chemicals the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows into the air, water and land every day.

The region has "the largest concentration of coal-fired power plants in the world," all of which burn mercury-laden coal, Blair said.

The whole region is a hot spot

Blair cites EPA data that shows Indiana ranks in the nation's top 20 in the release of mercury and mercury compounds. In 2008, Indiana industries reported 11,724 pounds were released into Indiana's air, water and land.

According to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, 44 percent of that — 5,198 pounds — came from nine Ohio River Valley counties.

In a report on mercury in streams issued in January 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey said, "Scientists identified an area in southeastern Indiana where high mercury concentrations in the rain had contributed to some of the highest mercury deposition in the U.S."

The counties with high rates of special education students are directly in the path of these mercury-emitting, major power plants, Blair said after reviewing the DoE data. And the air-borne pollutants are but part of the story. After the coal is burned for electricity, toxic coal waste, which is laden with heavy metals, contaminates the groundwater.

Blair's office is about 20 miles south and east of Robert Owen's New Harmony. "The whole region is a hot spot for mercury deposition in all its forms," he said. "The burning of great quantities of coal has basically impacted our children's ability to learn."

IDEM responds

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) is legally charged with protecting citizens from environmental threats like mercury and other toxic chemicals.

"IDEM's regulatory role is to protect Hoosiers and our environment, which includes examining air toxics and reducing them as much as possible," Commissioner Thomas Easterly said in an e-mail response to questions from NUVO. "As I know you're aware, for the first time since we began monitoring air quality, the State of Indiana currently meets all of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS)."

Toxics released into the air, as well as the water and land, are regulated through permits that set limits on the amounts facilities can emit, Easterly said. They are issued on a facility-by-facility basis.

Indiana has a monitoring network to measure the level of toxic chemicals in the air, he said. And IDEM reviews this data and EPA's Triennial National Air Toxics Assessments (NATAs) to determine whether further investigation of air toxics is warranted, he continued.

With EPA funding, IDEM is carrying out two air toxics studies in the state: — a two-year IDEM study in Southwest Indianapolis and part of an EPA study of air quality at 63 schools in the nation, four of which are located in Indiana. They are examining the areas of the state where IDEM and EPA believe air toxics have had the highest potential to harm human life and the environment, Easterly said in the statement.

Neither study is evaluating any sites in the Ohio River Valley, nor are they monitoring for mercury. IDEM's Web site, however, highlights the threats mercury poses to children's health.

According to the web site, mercury is a primary pollutant of concern because it does not break down to less toxic forms in the environment. "Mercury poisoning can cause irreversible brain, liver, and kidney damage," IDEM says. "Fetuses and children are the most sensitive to mercury toxicity."

SIDEBAR: Special Education Rules

Indiana's "Special Education Rules" mandate public school systems to provide "free, appropriate public education" to citizens between 3 and 22 years of age who are identified as disabled under the Rules. A provision called "Child Find" says the schools must locate, identify and evaluate all students "who are in need of special education and related services in their districts, regardless of the severity of their disabilities."

Indiana Department of Education (DoE) Coordinator of Special Education Dawn McGrath said the Child Count Data, as the annual tallies are known, are as faithful as the process allows. "We're all trying to hit it head on, accurately," she said during an interview in her downtown Indianapolis office. "It's a purpose we're charged with. It's certainly our goal to do it right."

Every school district must submit Child Count Data to state and federal governments each year, identifying students who receive special education services under 17 specific categories. The diagnostic criteria for each are spelled out in the Rules.

More detailed data compiled and provided by McGrath and DoE Communications Director Lauren Auld break the numbers down into percent of enrollment by category. During the 2008-09 school year, five diagnoses comprised the bulk of them statewide:

* Learning Disabled - 5.7 %

* Communication Handicapped - 4.6 %

* Mildly Mentally Handicapped - 1.4 %

* Other Health Impaired -1.2 %

* Autistic - 1 %

All special education categories together equaled 17.5 percent of the state's public school population. Those five categories accounted for 83 percent of them.

McGrath said the 1997-2008 data use old terminology. "Handicapped is a term we haven't used for a decade, because that kind of means you're handy with your cap," she said. "It's kind of condescending."

Learning Disabled is now called Specific Learning Disabilities, Communication Handicapped is now Language or Speech Impairment and Mildly Mentally Handicapped is now Mild Cognitive Disability.

Under revisions made to the state's Special Education Rules in 2008, the new terminology will be reflected in Child Count Data next year. Autistic will be called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Other Health Impaired (OHI), which includes Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and several other conditions, will remain unchanged.

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