Four of the 10 largest environmental penalties levied against Indiana companies in 2004 involved air pollution violations, an area of regulation likely to come under renewed focus after the first-ever "fine particulate" health warning was issued last week for Marion and five other counties.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management, which sounded the alarm, assessed $1.2 million in air pollution penalties last year-almost half of the $2.4 million in 1999, according to state records.
The decrease in air penalty amounts is roughly in line with an overall drop in monetary penalties for all forms of pollution violations since 1999. Last year, IDEM assessed $2.6 million in environmental penalties for violations ranging from rusting tanks of nerve gas to a mobile home park operator that burned mattresses and sofas. Total penalties assessed in 1999 were $6.4 million.
It's unclear whether the decline in penalty amounts since that peak reflects increased compli- ance by companies, decreased enforcement-or both.
"It's probably a conscious shift to more compliance assistance, instead of enforcement," said Tim Maloney, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.
Compliance assistance tends to involve providing technical advice to offenders on how to correct and prevent a problem, rather than a punitive fine.
The Indiana Manufacturers Association's environmental lobbyist has a different take.
"I don't think it's a reduction of enforcement. I think it's attributable to a higher awareness of compliance" among companies, said Patrick Bennett.
For their part, IDEM officials declined to elaborate on the reason for the drop, saying state and federal environmental regulations have continually changed in recent years.
"We may have more people coming into compliance. That's our hope," said agency spokeswoman Laura Pippenger.
IDEM on Feb. 1 issued its first-ever warning for fine particulates for Marion County in central Indiana; for Lake, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties in northern Indiana; and for Vigo County in the western half of the state.
Fine particulates, which can cause severe respiratory problems for some people, generally are the product of combustion ranging from smokestack emissions to vehicle engines. IDEM said an especially stagnant weather pattern over much of Indiana contributed to the problem.
Usually, it's ground-level ozone that plagues the state during the summer months. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said two dozen Indiana counties were in violation of federal ozone standards. The state has until the end of the decade to implement an ozone-reduction plan or face emissions testing and loss of some federal funds.
IDEM officials say they don't know the degree to which manufacturing-related emissions contributed to the recent particulate warning. Air pollution violators topped the list of companies assessed the most in penalties last year.
Paying the most was Dover Industries' Rotary Lift division in Madison, which agreed to a $250,000 settlement last year for violations dating to 2001.
The maker of automotive lift equipment was also cited for exceeding an emissions standard for volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, stemming from a painting line.
The company subsequently switched to coating materials found to be in compliance. In lieu of paying the full $250,000, Dover paid IDEM $25,000 in fines last year and invested the balance of the $250,000 toward an even more environmentally friendly powder coating line, according to state records.
Such so-called "agreed orders" are different from outright fines in that the state and the company negotiate a settlement that often includes a remediation plan. Often, these deals take years to work out, however.
The second-largest penalty negotiated last year was $220,000 against New Energy Corp.'s ethanol production plant in South Bend, in part for failing to adequately contain VOC emissions. The company agreed to modify scrubbers.
Meanwhile, Carmel-based electronics firm Thomson agreed to pay $67,000 last year stemming from problems at its Marion picture tube plant that included excess carbon monoxide emissions in 2003. Thomson closed the plant last year for unrelated reasons.
Other air penalty cases include Precoat Metals' metal-coil-coating operation in Portage, which agreed to pay $56,000 involving VOC emissions. Closer to home, Eli Lilly and Co. is paying $18,000 for excess particulate emissions from a coal-fired boiler at its Tippecanoe Laboratories in Lafayette.
But many of the 261 violations IDEM recorded last year involved improper storage of hazardous waste. One of those cases involved the nerve gas storage and decommissioning facility, Newport Chemical Depot in Vermillion County.
According to the agreement assessing a $32,000 penalty against the facility, a number of six-ton containers believed to contain residual amounts of deadly VX nerve gas "were rusted and were sitting in a concrete containment area which held approximately 12 to 20 inches of standing water. The [containers] on the bottom row were in contact with the water."
Newport officials argued that the corrosion amounted to surface rust on very thick metal containers, said Nancy Johnston, chief of hazardous waste enforcement at IDEM.
"Nothing was released from the containers. The potential was there," Johnston said.
The largest hazardous waste penalty involved H.A. Parts Products of Indiana, in Greencastle, which paid $95,000. IDEM inspectors cited the company for numerous incidents of improper storage of everything from crushed light bulbs to solvents. The agency said that resulted in the disposal of solvent-contaminated materials at a municipal landfill.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, IDEM settled for $5,312 with the West Otter Lake Mobile Home Park in Angola, citing open burning of household trash, including couches and mattresses, during 2002.
As far as enforcement is concerned, environmental advocate Maloney said he'd like to see IDEM focus more on financially penalizing repeat offenders, such as a Crawfordsville farm blamed for fish kills in Little Sugar Creek that's received "nothing more than a slap on the wrist."
Maloney also said a more comprehensive approach toward air pollution by the state could focus on proposed development, as well-such as the likely increase in air pollution caused by the extension of Interstate 69 from Indianapolis to Evansville.
He pointed to a report by a consultant hired by the Indiana Department of Transportation that projected a 327-percent increase in vehicle miles of travel by 2025 along State Road 37 on the south side, which is the corridor for the proposed interstate linking up with Interstate 465.
Environmental advocates want to move that link to Interstate 70, farther west and away from the metro area.