"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



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