Emissions and Automotive and EPA and Regulation and Air Quality and Federal Government and Energy & Environment and Environment

Area air quality given mixed reviews

April 7, 2008

Helped by a combination of plant closures and better emission controls, industrial air pollution in the nine-county region has fallen 14 percent since the economic boom of the late 1990s, a federal database shows.
 
But even with the reductions, the metro area will struggle to comply with reduced ground-level ozone limits announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency March 12.

Failure to comply with the government's tougher standard could eventually dampen prospects for plant expansions even as the manufacturing sector gets its act together.

Compliance will be tough, observers said, primarily because of motor vehicle emissions.

Highways are more congested and commuting distances are growing longer. The average peak-hour commuter in Indianapolis spent 43 hours in traffic in 2005 compared with 19 hours in 1982, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. That was an extra 28 gallons of fuel burned per vehicle in 2005.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management estimates vehicular emissions are responsible for roughly half the chemicals that contribute to the metro area's ground-level ozone problem. Watchdog groups say the percentage is just a bit higher.

Significant reductions in vehicular air pollution won't happen anytime soon in a city with limited mass transit alternatives.

"Right now, if you want to get around Indianapolis, generally you have to use a car to do that," said Tim Maloney, senior policy director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Single-passenger vehicles aren't the only problem. Trucks spewing black clouds of diesel exhaust while serving the region's expanding warehouse and logistics economy also contribute to the problem.

Positive industry trend

While the path to improving vehicular emissions is hazy, the big picture is brighter where pollution from factories is concerned.

According to the most recent data in EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, published last month, metro-area companies put 5.5 million pounds of chemicals into the air in 2006, the most recent year for which data was available.

That's about the weight of 1,374 midsize SUVs. Only the airborne vehicles in this case are toxic chemicals such as benzene, toluene and hydrochloric acid.

The amount is down from 6.4 million pounds (1,591 SUVs) in 1999, when the economy was running on afterburners.

New federal and state regulations involving chemicals and coatings and tougher permitting practices by the state have helped, said Amy Hartsock, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

"The regional controls have gone a long way in reducing emissions from facilities, and that is one important aspect of ozone formation," Hartsock said.

Less activity at Hoosier plants is likely another reason for the reduction in pollutants.

In the last few years, there's been a general softening in manufacturing orders, said Patrick Bennett, vice president of environment, energy and infrastructure at the Indiana Manufacturers Association.

Bennett was reluctant to draw conclusions from the EPA report, however. He noted that companies self-report information and that a number of variables, such as product mix, can skew information from year to year.

"The TRI in and of itself is not conclusive," Bennett said.

Clearing the air

Some former polluters fell off the list entirely in 2006 because they ceased operations. Among them was the former Daimler-Chrysler foundry southwest of downtown, which released 81,824 pounds of air pollutants in 2005, according to TRI.

Another major polluter--Citizens Gas' former coke manufacturing plant southeast of downtown at 2950 Prospect St.--closed in July 2007, too late to affect the 2006 numbers. In its final full year of production, the plant released 136,373 pounds of airborne pollution, including benzene, which can cause cancer.

The most recent data appear to show an improvement by the region's single biggest air polluter--Indianapolis Power & Light. IPL's two plants in the metro area burn high-sulfur, Illinois-basin coal to generate electricity, an inherently dirty process.

IPL was responsible for 3.1 million pounds of the 5.5 million pounds of air pollution generated by industry in the nine-county area in 2006. Most came from IPL's Harding Street electric-generating station in southwest Marion County, the rest from its Eagle Valley plant in Martinsville.

EPA data show IPL reduced the Harding Street station's emissions--mostly hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid--25 percent from 2005 to 2006. IPL said a $60 million pollution control upgrade in 2005 reduced nitrogen dioxide emissions at the plant about 87 percent.

To comply with stricter federal and state rules, IPL is in the midst of a 10-year, $600 million pollution control campaign. It includes adding flue-gas desulfurization equipment at Harding Street. Parts of the project should reduce sulfur dioxide emissions 97 percent, the utility said.

IPL also has projects in the works involving its Martinsville station.

Meanwhile, in Shelbyville, Knauf Insulation is spending more than $10 million on "regenerative thermal oxidizers" that take air and pollutants flowing out of ovens and feed them back through ovens a second time before sending them up a chimney. The process also reduces Knauf's electric usage, so, theoretically at least, that means less must be generated by coal-fired power plants.

Knauf emitted more than 197,000 pounds of air pollution in 2006, according to the EPA database. Among the chemicals it emitted were ammonia and phenol.

A number of chemicals, including a broad class used in industry known as "volatile organic compounds," cause a chemical reaction that creates ozone, better known as smog, when in the presence of sunlight.

Health, economic risk

Ground-level ozone is villainous for its health effects, particularly for people with bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. It can scar lung tissue. Ground-level ozone also damages vegetation and ecosystems, the EPA says.

Central Indiana had only last year moved into ozone attainment when the EPA announced this month it would toughen its standard to 75 parts per billion from 84 parts per billion.

Non-attainment could eventually lead to vehicle emissions testing and costly vehicle repairs and replacement. It could force regulators to take extreme measures, such as denying permits needed for new plants, and it could discourage manufacturers already here from expanding.

Only a few weeks ago, Cheryl Morphew, executive director of Johnson County Development Corp., got a call from a prospective new firm asking about the county's air attainment status.

Unfortunately for Morphew, Johnson County is lumped into the non-attainment status of the region even though air pollution from private industry in Johnson County is down 95 percent from 1999.

Part of the county's improvement in air quality is the byproduct of losing some large manufacturers, including a former ArvinMeritor plant in Franklin.

Mergers, outsourcing and continued loss of manufacturing to low-wage countries such as China will continue to shrink Indiana's traditional manufacturing economy--with pollution reduction being perhaps the only positive outcome.

Witness Madison County, where General Motors Corp. abandoned its auto parts plants in recent years. Madison County's air emissions plummeted 70 percent since 1999, according to EPA data.

Such reductions are being offset to some extent by growth elsewhere, such as in Hancock County and fast-growing Hendricks County.

In rural Hancock County, industrial air emissions soared 215 percent from 1999. The big source--behind IPL--is Indianapolis-based Roll Coater Inc., which applies paints and other coatings to steel and aluminum coils.

Roll Coater's rise in emissions coincides with the 2006 expansion of its Greenfield plant.

More to do

Meanwhile, organizations such as the Indiana Clean Manufacturing Technology & Safe Materials Institute, at Purdue University, have been helping companies use new manufacturing techniques to reduce pollution.

Research by the institute has helped reduce volatile organic compounds during fiberglass manufacturing. It prompted American General Corp. to change the way it painted Hummer trucks, reducing emissions and paint consumption.

The institute has worked with about 3,000 companies since 1996 and estimates its work has helped reduce pollutants by 7,400 tons statewide.

Maloney, of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said there are opportunities to reduce non-industrial air pollution as well, such as better land planning that encourages more mixed-use development.

Clustering residential areas with places to shop and making developments more pedestrian-friendly tends to reduce vehicle usage.

IDEM's Hartsock said new fuel formulations and engine standards also have helped reduce air emissions. She said voluntary programs, such as the "KnowZone" campaign, aimed at discouraging vehicle use during hours of the day when ozone forms, also will be called into play to help meet the new EPA ozone standard.

And mass transit is getting more traction. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization this year plans to recommend a route and type of mass transit vehicle for northeast-side commuters--perhaps a monorail-type vehicle. An innovative transit funding bill died in the General Assembly this month, but, "I can't ever recall a time at the Legislature when there was so much talk of transit funding," Maloney said.

Meanwhile, bus system IndyGo has used a three-year federal grant to launch commuter bus service to Fishers and Carmel, and Greenwood is next. The Central Indiana Commuter Service continues to sign up car- and vanpoolers.

In the meantime, manufacturers might want to pray for clouds to hide the sun.

"Less sunlight could reduce ozone," Bennett said.

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