ROCKPORT — Indiana topped the nation last year in the amount of toxic chemicals its factories discharged into waterways, according to a report from an environmental ground that found Hoosier industries dumped more than 27 million pounds of pollutants into the state's rivers and streams.
The report by Environment America, which published the report as a follow up to a similar study in 2009, also found that AK Steel at Rockport, Ind., was one of two Midwestern plants that had the highest amount of discharges into the Ohio River in 2010.
AK Steel's pollution discharges were 24 million pounds in 2010 — more than two-thirds of the pollutants discharged into the Ohio River by the states that line the river.
"America's waterways are a polluter's paradise," said Shelley Vinyard, a water advocate with the Washington, D.C-based group.
Barry L. Racey, director of government and public relations for AK Steel, said the plant produces stainless steel for automotive parts and other uses. A cleaning process at the plant uses nitric acid, which gets treated and released into the Ohio River as a wastewater containing nitrates.
He said the size of the releases do not "indicate anything illegal or indiscriminate or any disregard for the environment" and are within what the government allows.
Racey also told The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., that fertilizers add a much greater amount of nitrates into the Ohio River but those numbers are not required to be added up and reported.
The study was based on discharges into the nation's waterways that industry reported for 2010 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory.
Amy Hartsock, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, downplayed the big discharge number reported for AK Steel.
She said in a written statement that reported discharges from the Toxics Release Inventory "cannot be used to draw conclusions to human health or the environment."
"IDEM holds all permitted facilities in Indiana, including AK Steel, accountable for meeting health-based water quality standards approved by U.S. EPA and designed to protect human health and the environment," Hartsock said.
Indiana's total statewide discharges into waterways totaled 27 million pounds — the nation's highest — followed by Virginia, Nebraska, Texas and Louisiana. Some of the chemicals released in Indiana were associated with cancer, reproductive problems and developmental problems.
While the Ohio River is, by all accounts, much cleaner than it was a generation or two ago when it was used as an open sewer for industries and millions of toilets, the report shows that some industries continue to use the 981-mile river continues as a way to dispose of waste.
"It's still an industrial, working river," said Judy Petersen, executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, an advocacy group not affiliated with the report. "It receives a lot of toxic discharges.
Petersen said some of the pollutants discharged into the Ohio can harm people, even in small doses. She's particularly concerned about heavy metals such as mercury, which is a neurotoxin that accumulates in the environment, including fish, and can damage the youngsters' nervous systems. Fetuses exposed to mercury can develop brain damage, blindness and seizures.
Several states, including Indiana and Kentucky, warn people to limit or avoid eating fish from the Ohio River because of mercury in them.
"A little bit of mercury goes a long way toward problems in the population," Petersen said.