Downtown plant works toward cleaner air

The Perry K Steel Plant has been operating downtown since 1893.
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A recent report by a national environmental group ranks Indiana fourth on the list of most toxic states. But you might be surprised at the main source of the problem - and how environmentalists say is the best way to solve it.

The Perry K Steam Plant has been part of the Indianapolis skyline since 1893. It sits on prime real estate, between Lucas Oil Stadium and Victory Field and provides steam and hot water to most of downtown.

Bob Purdue runs the plant and says just because it's old, doesn't mean it operates that way. The equipment has looked the same for decades, but on the inside, newer parts and a strict maintenance schedule make it run more efficiently.

"Yes, we annually do tune-ups to the boiler to check all the internal components, look at burners to make sure they meet the specifications by design of the manufacturer," Purdue said.

Half of the boilers have been switched to natural gas, but the rest still use coal. The plant now burns 175,000 tons of coal a year, then has to try to capture the potentially harmful by-products.

"We've installed pollution equipment to ensure that we're meeting all the state and Federal rules that apply to the plant," said Ann McIver, director of environmental stewardship at Citizens Energy.

Inside a 21st century control room inside the 19th century building, equipment monitors everything released into the air.

"For sulphur dioxide, for example, our limit in state rules is three pounds for every one million BTUs of heat input and today we are emitting less than two pounds, so about a third, again, below the limit," McIver said.

With smokestacks reaching 240 feet into the sky, it might be hard for people to believe that the Perry K plant is not a main culprit in polluting our air.

When the plant was burning nothing but coal, environmental standards were either non-existent or not very comprehensive. The pollution that came from the smokestacks hung in the air and eventually fell onto the city below. The plant was one of the worst offenders in Indiana.

Now, Perry K is way ahead of environmental standards and on the way to getting better. By the end of 2014, it will be running entirely on natural gas, eliminating the release of mercury and sulphur dioxide, which can cause brain damage and breathing problems.

When that happens, environmentalists say the fight for cleaner air will go, literally, to where the rubber meets the road.

"Cars and trucks (emissions) are the main reason we have ozone action days in central Indiana," said Jesse Kharbanda, Hoosier Environmental Council.

That's because they put out nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, which can lead to respiratory problems. The Hoosier Environmental Council says making more fuel-efficient cars helps, but the best long-term answer is getting them off the road altogether.

"We'd like to see more public transit funding, because we think that's an added strategy that can happen at the local level," Kharbanda said.

Environmentalists say stricter emissions standards for cars and power plants are phasing in, but some in Congress want to loosen the rules.

The future of the air we breathe will depend on whether the government decides to stay the course or roll back the reforms.