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Waste in Indiana's waterways

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In classic mythology's Underworld, Phlegethon was the river of fire, although the otherworldly sight of a river in flames isn't reserved only for hell. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire numerous times before the infamous 1969 incident that caught the attention of the nation and in turn spurred the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Recalling the Cuyahoga River fire near the fortieth anniversary of the blaze, the group Environment America has released a new report, renewing the call to attend to the health of our nation's waterways.

Environment America cited the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory and states that in one year over 230 million pounds of toxic industrial waste were discharged into American waterways. Environment America used EPA data from 2007, as it was the most recent year available.

Environment America is a federation of environmental advocacy groups with staff in 27 states. The group feels that the Clean Water Act of 1972 needs strengthening.

The report also states that in 2007 Indiana led the nation in toxic, industrial waste dumped into waterways. Industrial companies in Indiana reported that 27 million pounds of waste were discharged in total.

Surprisingly, one company in Rockport made up the vast majority of the state's documented waste for 2007, 24 of those 27 million pounds. That company was AK Steel Corporation, which discharges waste into the Ohio River. It is important to note that the waste reported is permitted, and the company is operating within legal limits.

The river that makes our state's southern border earned an intriguing distinction from the study: it receives more pounds of toxic discharges than any river in the nation. The next worst, the New River, had less than half of the total toxic, industrial discharge of the Ohio River. The Ohio River takes on waste from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Approximately 90 percent of waste in the Toxic Release Inventory is composed of nitrates. Nitrates may come from a variety of sources and commonly stimulate out of control algal growth that can deplete waterways of oxygen and cause fish kills.

In response to the report, Amber Finklestein at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management counters that the polluters mentioned in the report are operating within legal limits. She goes on to say that the TRI is not an accurate way to look at water quality. She claims that while the TRI measures levels of toxic discharges it gives no quantification for whether those discharges make a waterway toxic. For a level of toxicity a proportion is needed, as in parts per million or parts per billion.

Finklestein states that IDEM samples Indiana waterways on a rotating basis and publishes a comprehensive statewide report every two years, the next report will be published in 2010.

The report compiled by Environment America only measures waste from industrial plants. Finklestein at IDEM and the Environment America report itself note that it is important to take into account that other pollution comes from various alternate sources. Finklestein mentions non point source pollution, which occurs when rainfall, snowmelt or irrigation run over surfaces picking up pollutants and then depositing them into a waterway.

Other large pollution concerns for the nation's waterways include wastewater treatment plants and agricultural facilities, which the Environment America report does not take into account. Further, some chemicals released at industrial sites are not on the TRI register and therefore do not have to be reported. Also, if an industrial site releases amounts of chemicals not reaching a threshold amount they do not have to be reported. Therefore, chemicals that cumulatively could be harmful are not mentioned in the TRI, according to Environment America.

Indiana bodies of water

Megan Severson of Environment America says that the White River is comparatively unpolluted in terms of industrial waste. However this does not give the White River a passing grade. In August, NUVO's Laura McPhee reported on an algal bloom that resulted in fish kills this summer. Contamination in White River could come from a variety of sources. An over fertilized White River with excessive algal growth would likely be the result of pollution of nitrate compounds.

IDEM's website houses a listing of all the impaired bodies of water in Indiana, which IDEM completes for the whole state every two years.

For the West Fork of the White River in Marion County, the river is listed as impaired for E. coli, PCBs in fish tissue and mercury found in fish tissue. PCBs were once widely used as coolants and lubricants, their manufacture has ceased due to health effects.

Other bodies of water on the impaired list in Marion County are: Broad Ripple tributaries, Fall Creek, Minnie Creek tributaries, Eagle Creek, Fishback Creek, Little Eagle Creek-Guion Creek, Pogue's Run, Pleasant Run, Indianapolis Tributaries, Bean Creek, Dollar Hide Creek, State Ditch, Mars Ditch, Geist Reservoir and Eagle Creek Reservoir.

For the East Fork of the White River basin and the West Fork of the basin 21 and 19 counties were listed with impaired waterways respectively. Many of the impaired waterways are tributaries that will eventually hook up to one of the forks of the White River. Causes for the impairment of the waterways in both forks of the White River basin were highly varied, including: E. Coli, impaired biotic communities, cyanide, mercury in fish tissue, PCBs in fish tissue, sulfates, lead, algae and taste/color.

In an article from the Muncie Star Press, Seth Slabaugh recently reported that a Ball State University study in which 20 samples were taken from the West Fork of the White River revealed many chemicals in the river which numerous cities use for drinking water. These chemicals included: antibiotics, acetaminophen, anti-bacterials, various other pharmaceuticals and DEET. According to the article water treatment plants don't treat the water for the above chemicals, and the federal government is still in the process of working out what level of pharmaceuticals is safe for treated drinking water.

So how does Indiana stack up comparatively to waterways around the nation? According to data provided by the EPA, of streams that have been sampled nationwide approximately 50 percent are in good condition with the other 50 percent being impaired. The Indiana average is slightly below the national average with 42 percent in good condition and 58 percent impaired. Yet only slightly more than half of Indiana's rivers and streams have been assessed so far. Indiana lakes are in far worse shape comparatively with 88 percent impaired and 12 percent in good condition. All 59 miles of Indiana's Great Lakes shoreline is impaired.

EPA data shows that the cause for impairment in Indiana is most commonly listed as unknown, while non point source pollution, and agriculture generally make up most of the causes for impairment. Industrial waste like that reported by Environment America does not register as high on the larger scale.

Advocates for stricter enforcement of the Clean Water Act, such as Environment America, hope that a bill currently in committee in the United States Senate, the Clean Water Restoration Act, will help bolster the strength of the older act. The bill would grant increased federal jurisdiction to waterways nationwide.

While Indiana's waterways are not exactly rivers of blood that boil souls, like Phlegethon, they are below average. Amber Finklestein at IDEM is hopeful, claiming that water quality levels in Indiana should rise during the next decade due to new regulations and watershed management efforts. Combined storm and sanitary sewers continue to be a problem, but Finklestein points to the success of bodies of water such as Big Walnut Creek and Pigeon Creek. Both were taken off the impaired list due to outreach, education of Hoosiers on safe water practices and other measures. For the state of Indiana to get clean water, awareness is key.

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