FORT WAYNE – Indianas struggling economy grew slightly in 2010 – and so did the amount of toxic chemicals companies reported releasing into the air.
The amount of poisons such as lead, mercury, chromium and hydrochloric acid that leaked from work areas and poured out of smokestacks grew by nearly 2 million pounds last year, up from 45.2 million pounds in 2009, according to government figures.
The toxins dumped into Indianas lakes and rivers, meanwhile, jumped 82 percent, fueled by the pollution from a southern Indiana steel mill nearly doubling. Without that facilitys increase, the total amount of toxins put into Indiana waters would have increased 4.2 percent.
The data come from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencys annual Toxic Release Inventory, a compilation of self-reported releases of 650 toxic chemicals.
Weve made great strides in the past three or four decades in reducing pollution, said Frank ODonnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental group in Washington, D.C. However, it doesnt mean weve solved all the problems.
Two years ago, state officials said the drop in pollution in Indiana in 2007 was not caused by the slumping economy but from companies having cleaner operations.
Environmentalists disputed that claim, and the data released this year seem to bear that out: The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the gross domestic product in Indiana increased 4.6 percent from 2009 to 2010; the amount of air pollution, according to TRI increased 4.3 percent over the same period.
Interesting coincidence, ODonnell said. That would lead one to suspect that the prior drop was due less to efficiencies and more to the sad state of the economy.
Indiana Department of Environmental Management officials now say it appears the economy may have some effect on the numbers but not as much as cleaner operations, which can be seen in the long-term decline of toxic releases in the state.
It appears that the economy may be influencing the decline of toxics reported in TRI. However, IDEM also believes that businesses create more efficient processes that either eliminate or reduce the toxic wastes that are generated, IDEM spokesman Robert Elstro said in an email. Additionally, businesses switch to processes that use less toxic substances. These long-term toxic reductions are part of the reason that the reported TRI volumes have declined in recent years.
Elstro said state officials are still analyzing the data and expect to have a report next month; environmentalists said IDEM does not seem committed to doing anything about it.
While industry may be proactively pushing to reduce its toxic footprint, theres no question that Indianas toxics production is, from a sheer volume standpoint, enormous – and concentrated in certain regions of the state, said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. Were not convinced that IDEM has sufficient boots on the ground to inspect – and offer to technical assistance to – these facilities at the pace and scale needed.
Though most examinations of pollution data focus on industry, such as manufacturing, the majority of the pollutants from Indiana smokestacks come from power plants. In 2010, 26.3 million pounds of toxins released to the air – 65 percent of the total – came from power plants. The pollutants from power plants are down 2.1 percent from the year before, according to the federal data.
That is very strong evidence for the need for the U.S. EPA to issue standards to limit mercury and toxic emissions from power plants, ODonnell said. That would go a long way in cleaning up the air.
Mercury is an extremely toxic chemical that causes brain damage. It is released from burning coal and is persistent in the environment, meaning it does not dissipate but moves up through the food chain and does more damage as it collects in animals and humans.
I think in particular, the electric power industry remains a blight on the environment, ODonnnell said.
About 9 percent of the states air pollution came from companies in northeast Indiana, where 4.1 million pounds of chemicals was released.
The largest amount came from the grain processor Bunge in Decatur, which released 379 tons of chemicals into the air, mostly N-Hexane and hydrochloric acid.
Bunge North America corporate spokeswoman Deb Seidel said all of the releases were within EPA limits.
We work really hard to maintain compliance and always look for opportunities to reduce those levels, Seidel said. As a company, weve set goals for ourselves in greenhouse gas emissions, and weve met or exceeded our internal goals, so its something we take really seriously.
In Fort Wayne, the largest volume of pollutants came from the General Motors assembly plant, which released vast amounts of trimethylbenzene, which can affect the nervous system, and n-butyl alcohol, which may affect the blood, liver, lungs and brain.
Other top polluters in the region included Louis Dreyfus in Claypool, R.R. Donnelly & Sons and Frontline Manufacturing, both in Warsaw.
GM corporate spokeswoman Sharon Basel said the company has worked hard to reduce its environmental footprint.
Recently, officials announced the truck assembly plant has achieved its goal of not sending any waste to the landfill, because everything is recycled. In the meantime, it burns methane gas from the landfill for electricity, which saves about $1 million a year. The company is looking to increase its use of landfill methane, Basel said.
The plant has also reduced the amount of volatile organic compounds – which contribute to smog – by 18 percent per vehicle produced, she said.
Theres a lot of really good things the plant has done, Basel said.
But the Hoosier Environmental Councils Kharbanda said the state needs to do more, starting at the top.
Its unbelievable when we hear prominent leaders in Indiana like the governor deride the U.S. EPA as being the Employment Prevention Agency, when cutting industrys enormous toxic footprint is a key strategy to making Indiana a more compelling place to live and do business, Kharbanda said.