This article originally appeared on Earth Day, April 22 2012, in the Indianapolis Star.
Indiana might be known for its rolling hills and farmland, but when it comes to being truly “green,” there is more work to do.
Jesse Kharbanda, executive director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said other states, including many in the Midwest, do a better job at keeping harmful pollutants out of the air and water, and they have more publicly owned forests and green space.
“Indiana has made progress in terms of the quality of our air and the quality of our water over the last few decades, that’s for certain,” he said. “However, there are some serious challenges that the state faces.”
Environmental groups like the Hoosier Environmental Council are trying to push for laws that would bring Indiana up to par with other states, but a likely Republican-controlled legislature focused on deregulation could make that challenging.
“It’s just the overall conservative nature of the General Assembly,” said Rep. David Wolkins, R-Warsaw, who is head of the House Environmental Affairs Committee. “Deregulation will be the main theme, rather than adding new programs.”
But in celebration of Earth Day today, Kharbanda said, Hoosiers can take a step beyond recycling and energy efficiency in their own homes; they can think about how environmentally friendly legislation could benefit the entire state.
Kharbanda said his group is focusing on legislation that would promote the environment and the economy, but Hoosiers need to convince reluctant legislators to support the measures.
“I think there’s a presumption among a lot of lawmakers that it’s an ‘either-or’ issue,” he said. “For us it’s an ‘and.’ ”
Here’s how Indiana stacks up on key environmental issues and what the state can do to improve:
Indiana is among the states with the lowest percentages of publicly owned land, Kharbanda said. Eighty-five percent of Indiana’s 5.1 million acres are privately owned, according to Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources.
In 2008, BioCycle, a composting and recycling publication, said that Indiana’s garbage production per capita was the highest in the nation, at 2.15 tons of waste per person.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management addresses petroleum and chemical releases, and cleans up land contamination from business sites that often predate rules and regulations.
The agency had addressed 290 of 1,178 business sites such as dry cleaners, manufacturing facilities and refineries. In addition, IDEM manages hazardous waste at industrial sites, cleans leaks and spills from underground storage tanks, and removes tires from illegal dumps.
Indiana discharges into its waterways more toxic pollutants than any other state, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Indiana was one of only three states that released more than 15 million pounds of pollutants into its waterways in 2007, according to EPA data. That year, it released more than 27 million pounds into its waterways. And according to 2010 data, it’s continuing to release that much.
The Ohio River, which runs through Indiana and other states, had the highest level of toxic discharge, according to the 2010 data.
More than 4.5 million Indiana residents are drinking tap water with chemicals in quantities above health guidelines, according to the National Tap Water Quality Database. Nearly 1.6 million are drinking tap water with chemicals in quantities above legal limits.
Of the 81 chemicals found in Indiana water from 2004 to 2009, 54 were related to industrial waste, according to the database.
According to a 2011 Environmental Integrity Project report, Indiana ranks fourth-worst in toxic air pollutants. The state’s chromium, arsenic, cobalt, HCI, lead, mercury, selenium and nickel counts exceeded acceptable standards.
However, the state has shown improvement in some areas.
In 2005, Indiana had 24 counties and townships in violation of ozone standards and 17 in violation of fine particulate matter — particles found in smoke, haze, near roadways and industries. In 2009, all 92 counties met those health-based air quality standards.
Indiana has one ozone air monitor for every 154,000 Hoosiers, the best among neighboring states. Ohio is next, with one monitor for every 230,000 residents.
How can the state improve?
Kharbanda said his group plans to encourage the legislature to do three things:
Restrict fertilizers with phosphorus, which can run off into water and cause algae, like the kind that has populated Geist and Morse reservoirs. That will help the environment, as well as the state’s recreational industry, he said.
Support mass transit. That way, he said, fewer people will have to drive to work, and the transit system could spur economic development.
Pass Property Assessed Clean Energy laws, which would allow communities to issue special bonds and distribute the money from those bonds to businesses to spend on “green” projects, such as adding solar panels or energy efficient windows.
Nearly half the states in the country, including Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, already have these laws, Kharbanda said, and they help businesses and the environment.
But it’s uncertain how successful Kharbanda will be in what’s likely to be a Republican-controlled legislature.
Proposals for creating mass transit, restricting phosphorus in fertilizer and implementing PACE laws all failed to pass the General Assembly this year.
Proponents of the latter two proposals, particularly, didn’t make their case, Wolkins said adding that there is very little phosphorus in fertilizer anymore because the market has corrected the issue on its own. And banks, he said, approached Republicans with financial concerns about the PACE program.
He expects Republicans to push for fewer regulations to create a more business- and energy-friendly environment.