"Wrong way Indiana

I know “the Region,” as some folks like to call the northwest Indiana coast of Lake Michigan, is pretty far afield for many of us here in landlocked Indianapolis. It’s a three-hour drive to a place with sand dunes, steel mills and labor unions. Compared to Central Indiana, it might as well be a different country.

But events in the Region over the past few months have shed a lot of light on the attitude the Daniels Administration brings to the table when it comes to caring for the quality of Indiana’s environment.

You might recall the public thrashing Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management endured last summer when word got out that IDEM had given the British Petroleum refinery in Whiting permission to substantially increase the amounts of ammonia and suspended solids it dumped into Lake Michigan. The U.S. House of Representatives voted almost unanimously in disapproval of this permit, which flew in the face of over 20 years of efforts to reduce amounts of pollution in the lake. Through it all, Gov. Daniels and his head of IDEM, Thomas Easterly, struck a “What, me worry?” pose, insisting that Indiana’s environmental standards were above reproach. Fortunately, the public’s outcry over the state’s willingness to let BP use Lake Michigan for a toilet caused BP to back down and seek alternative ways to process its waste. More on this later.

No sooner had the BP story begun to fade than the Region made the news again. This time it’s because IDEM has proposed giving U.S. Steel in Gary five years to comply with limits on the toxic chemicals like mercury it dumps into the Grand Calumet River. The Grand Calumet feeds into Lake Michigan. IDEM said they wanted to give the steel giant a break because it could face “engineering problems” in complying with clean water standards.

Indiana’s penchant for favoring industry over the environment got the attention of the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency. It plans on holding a public hearing in December to look into why Indiana thinks it’s OK to flush high levels of toxic waste into Lake Michigan.

As usual, IDEM insists that the permit it wants to give U.S. Steel complies with state and federal standards. But there’s a problem. It turns out that a $1 million study that IDEM commissioned over three years ago to look into mercury levels in the Grand Calumet is missing in action. According to a story in Gary’s Post-Tribune, “nobody at [IDEM] was able to answer when work on the study started, what exactly had been done so far and how much taxpayer money had been spent.” 

The study, by the way, was inspired by the fact that the last time anyone tried measuring mercury in the Grand Calumet, it was 13 times higher than standards allow.

Daniels has tried to turn this situation into a battle between economic development and environmental worry-warts. When Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin asked, “why month after month we have to worry about the governor of Indiana asking for another permit to pollute this lake,” a Daniels spokesperson replied, “It’s clear that the senator doesn’t care if steelworkers lose their jobs or not …”

But there’s a problem here, too. It’s not clear that U.S. Steel couldn’t comply with standards today if it had to. Not only that, it is downright bizarre that the governor continues to insist that a policy of environmental degradation promotes business growth in Indiana.

In October, the business magazine Forbes published a list of America’s “greenest states.” If the governor saw this, he found that Indiana ranked 49 out of 50, just ahead of West Virginia, behind Alabama and Louisiana. He might have read, “All suffer from a mix of toxic waste, lots of pollution, consumption and no clear plans to do anything about it. Expect them to stay that way.”

Indiana’s robber baron approach to business is 100 years out of date. Not only is a substandard environment unattractive to new business, it ignores the potential that’s already here. The Brookings Institution has found that cleaning up the Great Lakes would reap $50 billion in economic gains — twice what the cleanup would cost. It would also boost property values, reduce wastewater treatment costs and attract new residents. Given the lakes’ falling water levels and precarious health, the Brookings study calls for implementation of its plan in the next five years.

But if that’s not soon enough for you, why not reward environmentally sound businesses that are already operating in Indiana? In South Bend, a company called Bioremediation has developed technology that it claims can solve BP’s waste disposal problem. It’s worked for Exxon, Conoco and Marathon. So far, though, BP has failed to return their calls. “We can help them,” the company’s president, Steve Kennedy, told the Post-Tribune. He might have been talking about the mismanagement of Indiana’s environment when he added, “It’s just whether or not they’re willing to listen.”