Thanks to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and U.S. Sens. Joe Donnelly and Todd Young, the environmental woes of East Chicago residents are getting the heightened attention they deserve.
The site of a former lead-smelting plant was declared a federal Superfund cleanup project in 2009, but last year the government discovered that lead and arsenic poisoning were still imperiling hundreds of nearby residents. Holcomb declared the area an emergency site and earlier this year offered state help in relocating residents.
Thursday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is scheduled to visit, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has accepted an invitation from Donnelly to visit the site, as well.
East Chicago is also dealing withelevated lead levels in its water related to aging lead pipelines.
The northwest Indiana city's problems are vivid reminders of why the state'santi-pollution watchdog, the IndianaDepartment of Environmental Management, needs to be robustly funded and staffed.
Environmentalists have long expressed concern that IDEM's staff and budget are inadequate to its task. According to the Hoosier Environmental Council, staffing levels and appropriations for the agency have shrunk by 17 percent over the past decade.
Now, as the Trump administration prepares to make deep cuts in the EPA's resources and regulatory authority, it's important that IDEM have adequate support.
Tim Maloney, the environmental council's senior policy director, said in an interview Monday that although the state budget adds $1.6 million to help fund one cleanup site in Indianapolis and about $10 million for underground storage-tank cleanups, two crucial areas remain underfunded.
Superfund sites like the one in East Chicago are overseen by the feds. But the state has prime responsibility for 420 other high-priority contamination areas, each of which requires oversight by one of nine IDEM staff managers, Maloney said. “Cleanups may require soil and water sampling, vapor samplings,” he said. “These can be very technical and complex cleanups. It seems like an overwhelming caseload for even the most conservative project manager.”
The environmental council also continues to raise concerns about the agency's water-quality program. “IDEM oversees over 4,000 public drinking-water systems in Indiana, from large cities to towns with 100 or 200 people,” Maloney said. The agency helps train and certify opera-tors and prepares them to respond to problems; tests for unsafe levels of lead, arsenic and other chemicals; and monitors water quality in the state's lakes and streams.
In the last few years, Maloney said, IDEM staff charged with guaranteeing drinking water safety has shrunk from63 to 50 workers.
Attempts to get comment and confirmation from IDEM were unsuccessful Tuesday.
There have been rela-tively few major problems with Indiana water systems besides East Chicago's still-unfolding lead crisis.
But drinking-water contamination has hit uncomfortably close to Hoosiers in Flint, Michigan, and Toledo. “The effect of losing a community's drinking-water supply can just be devastating economically,” Maloney said.
Maloney argues that guarding against chemical hazards in our water and soil should be part of the effort to make our state an attractive place to live and do business by improving quality of life.
The environmental group is recommending an additional $1.4 million, or 6 percent in general fund appropriations, to allow IDEM to add staff for water quality and site-cleanup monitoring.
Lawmakers are rightly focused this week on such big-ticket items as infrastructure and school funding. But the legislative conferees should find a moment to consider the Hoosier Environmental Council's suggested addition to IDEM's appropriation.