13 Investigates: Indiana's Toxic Air
Indiana has a earned a dirty reputation as one of the worst states in the nation for air pollution. But is that reputation justified? As the debate over Hoosier air quality rages across the state, 13 Investigates has learned several cities and towns in Indiana are about to fail an important part of the Environmental Protection Agency's air safety rules. 13 Investigates where the state's air pollution is coming from, what's really coming out all those Indiana smokestacks, and whether the state is doing enough to protect our air.
Indiana has tons of air pollution – literally, tons of it.
Millions of tons of toxic chemicals and dangerous gasses are pumped into Indiana's air daily, according to government data obtained by Eyewitness News.
Steel mills, processing plants, all of our cars and trucks … they've helped earn the Hoosier State a dirty reputation. In recent years, multiple rankings and studies have prompted somber headlines describing Indiana air quality as some of the worst in the nation.
But if you ask state officials, they say there's nothing to worry about.
"The air quality is very good in Indiana," insists Keith Baugues, assistant commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management's Office of Air Quality.
So who's right? Is the air in our neighborhoods safe? And why are we getting such different stories?
While there are no easy answers, the controversy seems to center on Indiana's power plants – by far, the largest sources of pollution in Indiana.
Gasping for air
"Here in Indiana, we are under assault by thousands of megawatts of coal-fired electricity, and coal-fired power plants are the biggest polluters on the planet," said John Blair, a public health advocate who founded the ValleyWatch watchdog organization in southwest Indiana.
Blair is also a Pulitzer prize-winning photographer who's been documenting the environmental impact of Indiana power plants, and he says it's not a pretty picture.
"The air pollution that comes from these coal-fired power plants causes stroke, cancer, heart attacks and asthma, and people are being impacted by it," Blair said.
Arsenic, lead and mercury top a long list of toxic chemicals released from dozens of coal-fired power plants scattered across Indiana. The Environmental Protection Agency says they also pump out millions of pounds of dangerous gasses such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. Those gasses contribute to the formation of smog, acid rain and small toxic particles that can penetrate deeply into sensitive lung tissue. According to the EPA, inhalation of such particles can cause or worsen respiratory diseases, such as emphysema, bronchitis, and asthma, and may also aggravate existing heart disease.
"If you load your air with these pollutants, there's certainly a correlative effect to these ailments," Blair said. "The result is, this is not a healthy place to live."
Leighton Fry is too young to understand the impact of air pollution, but his mother fears he lives with it every day. The 3-year-old has chronic asthma. He needs two breathing treatments daily, and up to five other medications just to keep Leighton out of the emergency room.
"He gasps for air," said his mother, Rhiannon. "He gets into a coughing fit and it almost sounds like he's not going catch his breath, which can be very scary. You kind of think ‘I wonder if he should go outside today?'"
Leighton and his family live in the small town of Washington, Ind, which is about 60 miles southwest of Bloomington. Their home is eight miles directly downwind from Indianapolis Power & Light Company's Petersburg power plant, one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the state. And there are three more massive coal-fired power plants within a short drive of the Fry home. Together, they release more than 54 million tons of toxic chemicals and gasses each year, according to data released by the EPA.
"There's plenty of evidence that our children are being affected by it," said Norma Kreilein, a pediatrician who treats Leighton and hundreds of other young patients suffering from similar breathing problems.
She thinks pollution from power plants is largely to blame for the many respiratory problems she sees in children.
"They're constantly full of snot and full of infection and it takes major amounts of medications to get them where they are healthy," Kreilein said, adding that she sees a direct link between the symptoms and air pollution.
"The [link] is a mathematical certainty. Pollutants are inflammatory. It's the same link we see with cigarette smoke."
Indiana energy companies tell Eyewitness News the huge white billows pouring out their smokestacks is not what many people think it is.
"A lot of what you see coming out of the stacks is actually water vapor," explained Angelique Oliger, IPL's senior environmental coordinator. Representatives from IPL and Duke Energy say water vapor makes up somewhere between 93- and 99-percent of what you see rising from the stacks.
Dr. Kreilein believes what's left over (the other 1- to 7-percent) often settles onto nearby Indiana towns, and she presented photos as proof.
Some of the pictures, taken near the town of Washington as the doctor was driving to work, show a dark haze stretching for miles from the Petersburg power plant. The doctor says it's evidence local residents are breathing in more than water vapor.
"It's basically a black fog that settles for 10 to15 miles at a time," Kreilein said. "If it's steam, steam shouldn't be brown."
What is that dark-colored fog?
WTHR showed the pictures to the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service headquarters in Indianapolis, and he said the dark haze is, indeed, pollution from the power plant.
"They are basically particles, real small particles from smoke that are just trapped in this layer here," said meteorologist Dan McCarthy," pointing to the horizon in one of Dr. Kreilein's pictures. "It will appear as a darker color compared to the surrounding air."
McCarthy said several of the photos show what is referred to as an inversion, a meteorological phenomenon that occurs when warmer air gets trapped below colder air. Particles of air pollution are often trapped, too, with the potential for adverse effects on health.
"The problem with air pollution is it affects everyone," Kreilein said.
Power plants respond
IPL and other energy companies that do business in Indiana say air quality around their power plants meets legal limits.
"IPL is currently in compliance with all environmental regulations," Oliger said.
It's a point IPL wants to underscore to the public.
Oliger repeated the statement nine times during a 25-minute interview with Eyewitness News – primarily when asked to explain why IPL's Petersburg power plant appears on the EPA's High Priority Violator list. HPV status means the federal agency has information suggesting a company may be in violation of the federal Clean Air Act, and that the alleged violation poses a more severe level of concern for the environment or the integrity of EPA's monitoring program.
Indiana currently has 85 facilities on the HPV list.
"IPL appears on that list as a result of maintenance activity that occurred in the past," Oliger explained. "I can't go into a lot of detail on this topic because it is confidential, but what I can say is IPL is currently in compliance with all environmental regulations."
Like many other power plants in Indiana, IPL's Petersburg facility has been equipped with "scrubbers" to reduce the emission of sulfur dioxide and with SCR (selective catalytic reduction) units to reduce its releases of nitrogen oxides.
"Over the past ten years alone, we've invested over $600 million in environmental controls to reduce key pollutants," Oliger said. Following the interview, the company announced plans to spend an additional $511 million for the installation mercury-control devices on its smoke stacks in Petersburg and Indianapolis. Much of the cost would be paid by IPL customers.
The controls are making a significant impact. IPL says its overall sulfur dioxide emissions have dropped 50% over the past decade.
Duke Energy says it has achieved an even bigger improvement at its Gibson Generating Station. The giant power plant in southwest Indiana is the largest in the state and the third-largest coal-fired power plant in the world, providing enough electricity to simultaneously power 400,000 homes throughout the Midwest.
"We burn 8-and-a-half millions tons of coal per year, and when you burn the amount of coal that we burn, there is a byproduct of the coal being burned that goes out into the atmosphere," said Gibson plant manager John Hayes. "But with the scrubbers being put on the units, it's reducing the amount of sulfur dioxide substantially. It's been an 87% decrease."
Gibson is also on the EPA's High Priority Violator list for reasons Duke Energy would not discuss. "I'm not at liberty to talk about it at this time," Hayes said, pointing out he's used to scrutiny from state and federal regulators.
"Our size is our biggest problem. We're the big kid on the block so we stand out," he said. "We're the bully – or at least that's how we're seen – so you've got to be as clean as anybody because you're going to be looked at more than anyone else. The scrutiny is there and that's OK."
IPL and Duke Energy allowed WTHR to tour their power plants to get an up-close look at their facilities, smokestacks and environmental controls. Both insist they take pollution control very seriously.
"We have 50 people here assigned to that department," Hayes said. "We have a much cleaner unit than ever before."
Despite the improvements, the facilities still produce massive amounts of air pollution.
The Petersburg plant releases 40,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide, 3.8 million pounds of toxic chemicals and nearly 12 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to EPA data. The Gibson facility emits about 21,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide, 2.2 pounds of toxic chemicals and over 18 million tons of carbon dioxide.
Emissions levels like those are about to get several Indiana communities in trouble with the EPA.
Failing grade coming soon
13 Investigates has learned portions of at least six Indiana counties will soon fail the EPA's standard for acceptable levels of sulfur dioxide.
The EPA adopted a new, stricter SO2 standard in 2010. The tougher regulations are expected to take effect this summer, and when they do, IDEM says several communities near large power plants will immediately be classified as "non-attainment" zones by the EPA. Non-attainment status means the communities will not meet the government's minimum standard for air quality that is considered safe.
According to IDEM, the following areas will be affected:
- Portions of Indianapolis and Marion County will be classified as non-attainment because of high SO2 emissions from IPL's Harding Street plant and from Citizens Thermal Energy downtown facility.
- Portions of Martinsville and Morgan County will be classified as non-attainment because of high SO2 emissions from IPL's Eagle Valley power plant.
- Portions of Terre Haute and Vigo County will be classified as non-attainment because of high SO2 emissions from Duke Energy's Wabash River facility.
- Portions of Richmond and Wayne County will be classified as non-attainment because of high SO2 emissions from Richmond Power & Light Company.
- Portions of Petersburg and Pike and Daviess counties will be classified as non-attainment because of high SO2 emissions from IPL's Petersburg power plant and Hoosier Energy's Ratt power plant.
"The Petersburg plant is one of the sites that will be designated as non-attainment for SO2 over the next six months," said Baugues, who oversees IDEM's air quality program. "We have monitors there that show that they are not meeting the [new] standard."
Baugues says he is frustrated about the designation – but, surprisingly, his frustration is not directed towards the power plant.
We've known some of these areas in Indiana have not met the SO2 standard for a couple of years, but there's nothing we can do because the EPA won't give us the information and work with us on what needs to be done specifically to fix the problem," Baugues explained.
He says federal regulators have "dragged their feet" for more than two years, failing to provide IDEM with important details needed to help bring communities like Petersburg and Indianapolis into compliance with the new SO2 standard.
"They've admitted to us they don't have time to put together information we need to implement the things they want us to do," he said, shaking his head. "EPA fails miserably and doesn't come out with these documents until years and years and years later. It's just a process that isn't working very well."
The EPA sent 13 Investigates the following statement in response to IDEM's criticism: "Since strengthening the air quality health standard for sulfur dioxide in 2010, EPA has sought extensive input from states, industry and environmental groups on technical issues related to determining whether areas meet the new standard using monitoring and computer modeling. [sic] EPA is now moving forward with a strategy that includes guidance, rules and incentives to help states work through these technical issues and, where possible, achieve early reductions of SO2. Recent Clean Air Act rules will reduce emissions from power plants and other facilities and help states meet the revised standard by dramatically cutting pollution. EPA will continue to work closely with states, tribes and local air quality programs to protect public health and ensure that the new standard is implemented in a cost-effective, common-sense way."
Improving … or ignoring?
While waiting for that strategy and guidance from the EPA, IDEM says it is monitoring air quality around the clock in communities across Indiana.
That monitoring suggests Indiana air has been steadily improving for the past 30 years.
"It certainly has gotten much better during that time period. In fact, it's probably the best its been in our lifetime," Baugues said, pointing to a thick IDEM air quality report full of charts and graphs to support his statement.
John Blair agrees – sort of.
"The air quality is improving. It's improving significantly. That said, we still live in what I refer to as a dung hole of pollution," he said.
Blair and other environmental watchdogs believe that pollution is, in many cases, being ignored by the state.
"The state is charged with enforcing clean air laws and, in my opinion, they're not doing it very well," said Richard Van Frank.
A retired biochemist, Van Frank serves on the board of Improving Kids' Environment, an Indianapolis-based non-profit advocacy group that works to reduce environmental threats to children's health.
"When companies break the air regulations, they really ought to face penalties, but they usually don't even get a slap on the wrist," he said. "Just look at the enforcement actions and I think you'll see they've dropped dramatically."
13 Investigates did examine IDEM enforcement actions related to air regulations. They reflect a significant trend downward.
From 2003-2007, IDEM issued an average of 140 formal Notices of Violation annually to companies accused of violating clean air rules, and the agency issued 27 Commissioner's Orders to address violations of state clean air requirements. Since then, the number of air program NOVs has dropped to an average of just 56 violation notices per year – a 60-percent decrease – and IDEM has issued just 2 Commissioner's Orders.
"The problem with that is IDEM is turning their heads. They aren't paying attention. If they find a violation, they aren't really recording it as a violation," said Blair.
IDEM: "We are doing a good job"
IDEM insists it is not looking the other way.
"No, certainly not," said Baugues. "It's just that we are doing a good job, I believe, and the sources [of air pollution] are paying attention."
IDEM points out the number of informal violation letters sent by the agency has essentially remained constant over the past decade (about 790 per year) and that it has started referring some cases involving larger enforcement actions to the EPA. State regulators say most air program violations found at companies involve paperwork problems – not emissions problems – and are easily resolved.
The resolutions can be costly.
The University of Notre Dame, for example, recently agreed to a settlement for failing to perform routine nitrogen oxide monitoring for a boiler at its campus power plant. A Notre Dame spokesman said it was an oversight due to a mix-up with a private contractor and did not result in any negative impact on the environment.
The mistake cost Notre Dame $47,000 and earned the university a temporary spot on the EPA's High Priority Violator list.
But other air violations take years to resolve and result in no penalty at all.
Baugues says IDEM could use more inspectors, but he contends Indiana has adequate enforcement and high air quality.
"There's not a big worry," he said. "When people look at the level of air toxics, you'd really have very little concern."
But for Indiana families dealing with respiratory problems, there is concern.
"Of course, there's concern. I don't understand how they can say that," said Lisa Ash. She lives in Jasper, Ind. Her 10-year-old son, Timmy, suffers from chronic asthma, which often makes outdoor activity difficult.
"Just hurts my chest and makes me struggle a lot," Timmy told WTHR.
Lisa said pollution from nearby power plants seems to worsen his condition.
"We've had several different doctors suggest to us that it might be better for him if we lived somewhere other than where we do, but our jobs are here and our family's here," Lisa said. "I just know when we've gone on vacation and gone other places away from Indiana, [Timmy] hasn't had the difficulty breathing he's had here. It makes you really wonder what's in the air."
What can you do?
Environmental advocates point out the most effective way to reduce toxic air pollution isn't to rely solely on regulations and enforcement – it's to use less energy.
Using less electricity burns less coal.
Driving fewer miles burns less gasoline.
The combustion of coal and gasoline are two of the biggest sources of air pollution in the state.
"When you flip on the light switch and turn on the ignition, you need to realize there's a chance you are causing ill health for someone else," Blair said. "I'm not saying we shouldn't do those things, we just need to understand there's consequences – especially if we're doing them unnecessarily."
IDEM monitors air quality data from dozens of sites around the state. Click here to find your closest air quality monitoring site, where you can see today's air quality data.
WTHR has created an interactive map showing all of the major sources of air pollution in Indiana. It contains information on more than 600 companies that emit chemicals into the air. Click here to see the sources closest to your neighborhood and the amount of toxic chemicals and dangerous gasses they are releasing.