Toxic City


Indianapolis' pollution position

In its Clean Cities report for 2007, the American Lung Association named Indianapolis the ninth most polluted metro area in the United States and Marion the 11th most polluted county.

Indianapolis is the 13th largest city in America and, as the urban home to roughly 1 million people, it makes sense that a city and population of this size would generate some pollution.

But our city’s air pollution problems, caused in large part by our state’s air pollution problems, are disproportionately harming our economy, our health and our natural environment. They are also a direct result of competing political agendas and interests between state and city governments, as well as our own bad habits.

The air that we breathe

While air pollution isn’t a new phenomenon in Indianapolis, the bad news got substantially worse in 2005 when the Environmental Protection Agency designated it a “non-attainment” city because levels of fine-particle particulates such as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) exceed what the EPA calls “acceptable” standards — a problem the city had been unable to fix despite years of previous EPA warnings and violations.

The majority of fine-particle pollution in the U.S. is caused by emissions from power plants, coal-burning power plants most significantly. Indianapolis’ largest power station, the IPL generating station on Harding Street, just happens to be a coal-burning plant, just happens to be the No. 1 source of all air pollution in the city and just happens to be the 10th largest source for fine-particle sulfur dioxide pollution in the entire country.

Long-term exposure to sulfur dioxide and other fine particulates emitted by power plants has been associated with lung damage, lung scarring, reduced lung function and the development of chronic bronchitis, according to the EPA.

According to EPA studies, fine particle pollution causes more than 20,000 premature deaths per year in communities where coal-fired power plants like the Harding Street IPL station are located.

Sulfur dioxide also interacts with nitrogen oxide to form nitric and sulfuric acids, commonly known as acid rain.

Perhaps coincidentally, Indianapolis has the highest number of lung cancer deaths for women in America; the third highest rate of lung cancer deaths for men.

Still true, still inconvenient

Although the political and scientific debates over greenhouse gases have taken place largely in international or national contexts, the very real pollution and the very real costs of that pollution in human, economic and environmental terms is becoming a local issue with increased urgency.

This past year, Indianapolis became one of 500 cities to sign the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, a voluntary commitment by U.S. cities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and global warming pollution in their communities to the same level the United States would have been required to meet if President Bush had ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

“The quality of life, health and enjoyment of our cities and their residents are interlinked with our stewardship over our land, air and water,” Mayor Bart Peterson said when signing the agreement. “For Indianapolis to be a world-class city, and for every American city to be able to compete worldwide, we must make sure that we are responsible about this stewardship and ensure that our cities are safer, cleaner and healthier.”

In his State of the City address this past February, Peterson explained that “signing this agreement is just the beginning of our local efforts to decrease energy demands, improve air quality, protect the natural environment, minimize waste, consider more people-oriented development standards and educate our neighbors about how they can make a difference.”

Translating political speeches about global warming into policy action that actually reduces air pollution, however, isn’t easy.

In addition to signing the Mayor’s Agreement, Peterson has also outlined specific actions the city will take, as part of his “Indy Green Print” initiative, for “environmental stewardship.” Expectedly, those actions include things like an ad campaign to increase the number of city residents recycling; adding parks and other green space; increasing the use of flex-fuel vehicles; and changing light bulbs in city facilities to a more energy-efficient type.

While skeptics might find some of Peterson’s “green” initiatives overly simplistic, these same measures have already proven to be economically and environmentally successful elsewhere.

By converting city traffic lights from incandescent bulbs to LEDS, for example, the city of Arlington, Texas, saves an estimated $250,000 per year. In New York, the city is saving $6.3 million a year by replacing 80,000 bulbs in 12,000 intersections. The decreased cost also represents decreased energy expended, meaning fewer fossil fuels burned and less pollution created.

In another example, if Indianapolis residents heeded the mayor’s request and car-pooled, increasing the average number of passengers in a vehicle from one to two, the smog in the city would decrease by 25 percent almost immediately.

Unfortunately for Peterson, the steps necessary to diminish air pollution and climate change, like most environmental problems, cut across political and bureaucratic lines and require the cooperation of special boards, city councils, state legislators and the governor. They also require everyday Joes and Janes to modify their behavior.

Old King Coal

According to the EPA, roughly 50 percent of all the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from coal-fired generation; nuclear energy provides 20 percent, natural gas 18 percent, hydro-power 7 percent, petroleum 3 percent and the remaining 2 percent of electricity is generated from renewables such as biomass, solar and wind.

Coal-fired power plants are the single greatest source of greenhouse gases in the United States, the largest source of carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx) and mercury emissions into the atmosphere and the single largest cause of ground-ozone pollution (smog).

Nonetheless, energy companies have currently proposed building 150 new coal-fired power plants across the country, representing a $117 billion investment into the coal industry by local, state and federal governments. In contrast, less than 4 percent of taxpayer funded energy spending is going towards alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass.

Of the 150 new power plants currently proposed in America, the vast majority use traditional coal-burning technology. Only 16 percent of the proposed coal plants are capable of using “clean-coal” technology.

In Indiana, coal supplies over 90 percent of electric generation. It is one of the state’s most abundant natural resources, and Indiana currently has 17 billion tons of coal in reserve, while continuing to mine an additional 35 million tons a year.

Currently, Indiana leads the nation in CO2 emissions from coal-burning power plants.

These same power plants are also the reason the state is ranked fourth for mercury emissions, fourth for sulfur dioxide emissions and third for nitrogen oxide emissions in the United States.

Eight hundred and eighty-seven deaths, 1,491 heart attacks, 114 lung cancer deaths, 21,532 asthma attacks, 845 hospital admissions, 616 cases of chronic bronchitis and 1,274 asthma ER visits occur in Indiana every year due to the pollution from coal-burning power plants.

Recently the EPA found 17 Indiana counties in violation of air quality standards, requiring the state to form a cleanup plan for its coal production and consumption. In a letter of response to the EPA, Gov. Mitch Daniels opposed some of the violations and their subsequent penalties, saying the agency could do better to balance economic growth and development with environmental safety.

A few weeks later, Daniels announced his own initiative for Indiana energy consumption and production, based in very large part on innovative new technologies for using coal championed by Peabody Energy, the largest coal company in the world and owner of Black Beauty Coal, the largest coal company in Indiana.

Perhaps coincidentally, the president of Black Beauty Coal was also the biggest individual contributor to Daniels’ campaign fund.

As an economic asset and an energy source, Daniels considers the use of Indiana coal crucial to the state’s success, as touted in his 2006 “Hoosier Homegrown” energy plan where he specifically highlighted the building of new coal-fired power plants.

Though Daniels promotes clean-coal technology, the first new power plant in Indiana to be built under his plan, the Duke Energy generating station in Knox County, is to be built without the emission controls these new plants feature. Duke Energy has stated that they will add the clean-coal technology equipment only after federal law changes and sets carbon dioxide emission limits.

Thus, the new plant that Indiana taxpayers are subsidizing has the ability to be a clean-coal facility, but will not actually operate as one until the federal government mandates it to do so. By increasing coal production and consumption using traditional methods, this new plant will actually increase pollution and global warming emissions in Indiana.

All roads lead to congestion

Power plants aren’t the only culprits in a city’s pollution problem. In addition to fine-particle pollution, the biggest contributor to air pollution is smog — the layperson’s term for ground level ozone pollution. Power plants and motor vehicles are almost exclusively the causes of urban smog. In Indianapolis, automobiles and light trucks cause 48 percent of smog.

According to the EPA, ground-level ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react in the presence of sunlight. Smog is of greatest concern during the summer months when the increased sun and warmer temperatures react more quickly with NOx in the lower atmosphere.

Although ground-level ozone usually originates in urban areas, winds can carry NOx hundreds of miles, causing ozone formation to occur in less populated regions as well.

One in 3 Americans experiences ill-health effects due to ground-level ozone, and children, anyone doing rigorous outdoor activity, those with existing respiratory problems and the elderly are all at higher risk when ground-level ozone exists. Smog irritates the respiratory system, reduces lung function, aggravates asthma and damages the lungs.

It also causes environmental problems, including the ability of plants to grow healthily. More than $500 million in lost crop production in the United States can be traced to link between high levels of smog and low crop output. Damage to trees, grass and other plant life over extended periods of time point to the potential destruction of entire urban ecosystems.

Every year each Indianapolis driver produces 134 pounds of smog. Only Louisville and Oklahoma City scored worse in the United States, with 137 pounds per driver. In contrast, drivers in Los Angeles produce 65 pounds of smog annually.

The most efficient and effective way to reduce ground-level ozone in urban areas is through the construction of mass transit. According to research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, when the city of Atlanta built its mass transportation system in preparation for the 1996 Olympic Games, the city saw an almost immediate reduction in traffic (22 percent), reduction in air pollution (28 percent) and reduction in the number of asthma attacks (41 percent).

After many years of talk, Mayor Peterson now pledges that the time has come for Indianapolis to get serious about a public transportation system of its own.

“Growth supported solely by new roads and highways will cause us to choke in our own congestion and fumes,” he said in his State of the City address this year. “Unfortunately, that is where we are headed.

“We have done sophisticated planning for a rail-based rapid transit system for years without making a decision. The time has come for us to decide as a region whether we will move forward to modernize our public transportation system or not. We have all the information we need.”

Part of the information Peterson has is the fact that funding for public transportation in Indianapolis would rely, in part, on the Indiana General Assembly and the willingness of Indiana and Indianapolis residents to see their taxes raised or directed towards public transit.

Having yet been unable to convince the Indiana General Assembly of the necessity of consolidating the Indianapolis police and fire departments, it seems unlikely Peterson could convince the same body of politicians to enact stricter emission standards on utility providers or create a system of public rapid transit — the two actions that would result in the most significant improvement to air quality in Indianapolis.

And given the recent loss of the city’s bid to host the Super Bowl, the justification for raising our taxes in order to build the gargantuan Lucas Oil Stadium, the mayor can’t be relying on Indianapolis residents to pony up the cash for a rapid transit system any time soon.

He might as well be asking President Bush to honor the Kyoto Protocol; asking Gov. Daniels to invest as much taxpayer money in alternative energy as he is in coal; and asking us all to carpool.

Seemingly, we’d all rather choke.


Dirty facts

1 Indiana’s rank for production of solid-waste garbage in the United States

1 Indiana’s rank for cumulative cancer-causing toxins released into the air

1 Indiana’s rank for carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants

1 Indiana’s rank for lung cancer deaths among women

2.1 In tons, the amount of solid-waste garbage Hoosiers produce per person, per year

9 Indianapolis’ ranking among “Most Polluted Metropolitan Areas” in the U.S. according to the American Lung Association

11 Marion County’s ranking among “Most Polluted Counties” in the U.S. according to

the American Lung Association


Indiana’s top power plant polluters

PSI Energy (Gibson County)

Indiana’s #2 source of pollution

America’s #3 dirtiest power plant for SO2 by tons

Alcoa Generating (Warrick County)

Indiana’s #3 source of pollution

America’s #2 dirtiest power plant for CO2 by emission

Indiana-Michigan Power Co.

(Spencer County)

Indiana’s #5 source of pollution

America’s #14 dirtiest power plant for CO2 by tons

Indiana-Michigan Power Co. (Dearborn County)

Indiana’s #6 source of pollution

America’s #40 dirtiest power plant for SO2 by emission

PSI Energy (Vigo County)

Indiana’s #7 source of pollution

America’s #9 dirtiest power plant for SO2 by emission

Indianapolis Power & Light (Pike County)

Indiana’s #8 source of pollution

America’s #38 dirtiest power plant for CO2 by tons


Major polluters

Nitrogen oxides (NOx)

Pollution type: ground-level ozone

How we rank: Indiana’s NOx emissions rank: 3

Of the 350 largest power stations in the U.S., number of Indiana power stations that made the top 40 Dirtiest Power Stations in America for NOx emissions: 4

How it works: Nitrogen oxides react in sunlight with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to form ground-level ozone. Ozone pollution is of greatest concern during the summer months when increased sun and warmer temperatures react more quickly with NOx in the lower atmosphere.

Major sources: Motor vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions and chemical solvents

How it affects our health:

• irritates respiratory system

• reduces lung function

• aggravates asthma

• causes lung damage

How it affects the environment:

• contributes to nutrient overload that deteriorates water quality

• contributes to global warming

Sulfur dioxides (SO2)

Pollution type: fine-particles

How we rank: Indiana’s SO2 emissions rank: 3

Of the 350 largest power stations in the U.S., number of Indiana power stations that made the top 40 Dirtiest Power Stations in America for SO2 emissions: 6

How it works: Sulfur dioxide is a colorless and odorless gas that is produced when fuels such as coal and oil are burned, during the smelting of metal, and by other industrial processes. It can also enter the atmosphere naturally when volcanos erupt, and as sulfate particles from ocean spray. Generally, the highest concentrations of SO2 are found near large industrial sources.

Major sources: Coal-fired power plants

How it affects our health:

• long-term exposure has been associated with the development of chronic brochitis

• aggravates heart disease, asthma and lung disease

How it affects the environment:

• acid rain damages trees, crops, historic buildings and monuments, and makes soil, lakes, and streams acidic


Pollution type: chemical pollutant

How we rank: Indiana’s overall mercury air emissions rank: 5

Of the 100 counties in the U.S. with the highest level of mercury emissions from power plants, number of Indiana counties on that list: 4

How it works: Mercury in the air settles into water or onto land where it can be washed into water. Once there, certain microorganisms can change it into the highly toxic methylmercury, which builds up in fish, shellfish and animals that eat fish.

Major sources: Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of mercury air pollution and account for 40 percent of all mercury emissions worldwide.

How it affects our health:

• affects the nervous, cardiovascular and immune systems, especially in children

• in high amounts, can cause brain and kidney damage

How it affects the environment:

• highly toxic to wildlife

• accumulates in the tissues of fish and other organisms

• eagles, osprey, common loons, river otters, mink, and other fishing-eating animals may suffer premature death, weight loss, difficulties reproducing, and other problems

Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

Pollution type: greenhouse gases (global warming)

How we rank: Indiana’s total CO2 emissions rank: 5

Indiana’s CO2 emissions generated by coal-burning power plants rank: 1

Of the 350 largest power stations in the U.S., number of Indiana power stations that made the top 40 Dirtiest Power Stations in America for CO2 emissions: 4

How it works: Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal), wood, and solid waste are burned.

Major sources: Power plans are responsible for about 40 percent of man-made CO2 emissions.

How it affects our health:

• does not directly impair human health

How it affects the environment:

• contributes to global warming

Pollution: how you can help

As long as Indiana continues to rely on coal for its main source of energy, and until Indianapolis can convince lawmakers at the state level that urban pollution affects every resident of the state, the only way to significantly reduce pollution is to modify our individual behaviors.

The following simple recommendations can make dramatic improvements to the air quality in Indianapolis and the quality of life for us all.

For more information go to

1 Increase your awareness. Sign up for Knozone Action Day e-mail alerts at While there, check out the most recent air quality reading. You can also call the air quality phone line at 317-327-4AIR (4247) for up-to-date air quality readings and tips to help clean the air.

2 Start a carpool or vanpool. Carpooling or vanpooling is a great alternative to commuting to work, school or play alone each day. Not only are you helping reduce air pollution, you can also save money.

In the nine-county Central Indiana region, Central Indiana Commuter Services provides mobility solutions and commute options free of charge. Call 317-327-RIDE or visit for more information.

3 Use public transportation. Take the bus to work, school or to run a few small errands. In Marion County, IndyGo is the public transportation service provider. If you want to plan a trip using IndyGo, call 317-635-3344. IndyGo customer service representatives are available six days a week to answer questions and help you plan your next trip. You can also visit for more information.

4 Refuel vehicles and equipment in the evening. Sunlight plays an important role in smog formation. By waiting until the evening or the cooler part of a summer day, vapors that escape from gas pumps and cans as well as the exhaust from engines have less time to react to the sunlight. A good rule of thumb is to wait until after 6 p.m. to fill up any gas tank.

5 Mow your lawn and perform yard work in the evening. Exhaust from small engines, like lawnmowers, contribute to ground-level ozone and fine particle pollution. In fact, industry experts say that a typical 3.5 horsepower gas mower engine can emit the same amount of volatile organic compounds — key precursors to smog — in an hour as a new car driven 340 miles.

Lawn and garden equipment users inadvertently add to the problem by spilling 17 million gallons of fuel each year while refilling their outdoor power equipment. That’s more petroleum spilled than the Exxon Valdez in the Gulf of Alaska.

Wait until after 6 p.m. to mow your lawn or to use gas-powered outdoor equipment whenever possible. If you need to purchase a new lawnmower, consider buying an electric-powered or reel mower. Both are environmentally friendly and cut down on noise pollution.

6 Service your car regularly and keep tires properly inflated. Tune-ups, oil changes and proper tire inflation reduce emissions and save money.

7 Use a bicycle or walk short distances. Riding a bike or walking short distances is one of the best ways to help clean the air and also helps improve your physical health. Remember, try to perform outdoor activities in the morning or evening when air pollution levels are lower.

By the way, Marion County has a celebrated system of greenways throughout the community, which includes inter-connected bicycle paths. Visit the IndyParks Greenways home page at for more information.

8 Use water-based paints, stains and solvents. Latex is water-based and contains fewer chemicals than oil-based paints. Latex paint is every bit as effective as oil paint indoors and out and uses less harmful chemicals. Also, the paint thinners and cleaners for latex paint are much less toxic.

There are also paints available with a low volatile organic compound (VOC) level. Many paints are made with a high percentage of VOCs so that they will dry faster. VOCs are a primary contributor to smog. Low-level VOC paints release fewer fumes in newly painted rooms as well as outside. Generally speaking, a paint that has a flat finish will have less VOCs than a glossy paint.

9 Combine errands by planning ahead. Less time in the car means that there are fewer harmful emissions being released into our air.

10 Don’t idle unnecessarily. Turn off your car’s engine when possible. Instead of using a drive-thru lane, park and go inside instead. By not idling in a drive-thru, you are eliminating emissions that help the formation of ground-level ozone and fine particles. Plus, less gas is used, which means you will save money over the long-term.

11 Explore the possibilities of alternative-powered vehicles. If you are in the market to purchase a new vehicle, consider a hybrid or flexible-fueled vehicle (like ethanol-based gasoline engines) to help reduce auto emissions and decrease gasoline costs. Twenty-four of the largest automobile manufacturers make low-emission vehicles.

12 Avoid burning yard debris. In Marion County, outdoor burning is limited to comfort fires and the burning of yard debris in a container with a mesh, fireproof lid. However, rather than burning materials that release fine particles into the air, consider mulching your yard debris and using it around trees and plants. The Indianapolis Department of Public Works also sponsors a free leaf collection program in the fall. (Of course, ordinances will vary in each community. Ask your local governing body if a similar ordinance exists in your community.)

13 Reduce your use of wood-burning fireplaces and stoves. Limit the amount of wood you burn in your fireplace or wood stoves. When you do burn wood, select the dry, seasoned variety or consider purchasing wax and sawdust logs. If possible, use natural gas instead of wood.

14 Replace your appliances and light bulbs with energy-saving versions. Though it sometimes seems that our individual electricity usage cannot have much effect on the air quality, we must remember that together, all our electricity usage adds up. Replacing 25 percent of your home lighting with fluorescent bulbs can save you 50 percent on the lighting portion of your energy bill while reducing air pollution.