They're one of Indiana's biggest tourist attractions. And they're essential to the road jockey aboard the 18-legged pogo stick when he needs to take a rest 'em up.
But Indiana's 36 rest areas haven't been so inviting to the environment, with many in recent years dumping illegal amounts of ammonia nitrogen and E.coli bacteria into nearby streams, state records show.
An agreement the Indiana Department of Transportation signed earlier this year with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management calls for repairs and better management of the 15 rest areas where INDOT operates its own wastewater-treatment plants.
INDOT said the facilities were brought into compliance as of Nov. 1, after spending more than $20,000 on better training of plant operators and short-term repairs.
But longer-term fixes, such as rebuilding some plants and connecting others to municipal sewage systems, could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Megan Kaderavek, an INDOT spokeswoman.
The more immediate problem is, "We've had a very severe shortage of operators," Kaderavek said. "The operators could make twice as much [money] working for a municipal utility."
INDOT now has 12 plant operators earning $21,000 to $31,000 a year. Future pay increases to make the positions more competitive will be based on an operator's level of certification, Kaderavek said.
According to IDEM, many of INDOT's treatment plants have enough capacity to handle peak volumes of toilet waste, such as during the busy Thanksgiving-Christmas travel period.
But more often, they received a volume of waste at 20 percent of capacity.
"As a result, effluent stayed in the pipes and wasn't flushed out, which contributed to high ammonia levels," said Barry Sneed, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. "The other contributing problem was the [plants] were not being checked as regularly as they should be."
The violations date to 2002.
That year, an inspection of the Kankakee rest area, on northbound Interstate 65 in Jasper County, found ammonia concentrations in effluent "excessive and potentially toxic enough to cause severe damage to aquatic life," according to IDEM records.
Settling ponds were full of sludge and vegetation and "equipment was out of service; the laboratory area was cluttered with boxes, equipment and junk … and the laboratory records were inadequate and incomplete."
The Henryville rest area, on southbound I-65 in Clark County, discharged illegal levels of E. coli bacteria through much of 2003-2005. The creek into which the discharge flowed was brown from sludge, according to records.
An inspection last year found that the plant was rusting, with grating that was "dangerous to walk on in some places."
INDOT has since closed the southbound Henryville rest area.
Also last year, INDOT started making upgrades at plants, such as cleaning tanks and repiping ponds for better aeration.
"Additionally, INDOT management developed sludge management plans and improved staffing and pay for operators," Sneed said.
An earlier compliance plan, created in 2004, called for the installation of $150,000 in telemetry systems to better monitor the plants, and $60,000 in emergency generators. INDOT said implementation of that plan depended on funding, however.
"There were certain proposals that did not appear reasonable," Sneed said. "So IDEM did not approve the plan, funding was not developed, and it was not implemented."
That INDOT let its rest areas pollute for so long amounts to "thumbing their nose at the rules," said Rae Schnapp, water policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council.
"Here you have these very discrete sources [polluting] that are owned by the state."
IDEM has identified 645 waterways in the state with unacceptable levels of E. coli bacteria. Although surface waters are most affected, many groundwater sources, such as wells, also could suffer the effects, Schnapp said.
Many municipal water systems that draw from wells and waterways test and treat the water before pumping it to customers, but those that draw their water from private wells have no idea about contamination levels.
As far as contamination generated by rest areas, "the problems were localized and did not impact any municipal water treatment plants. To our knowledge, no significant impact to aquatic life or wildlife occurred," said IDEM.
Schnapp noted that a handful of rest areas have had high levels of bacteria in drinking water drawn from wells at the rest areas. She wonders whether they were contaminated by the wastewater plants.
IDEM said INDOT's wastewater plants "were not considered as a primary cause of problems at their drinking water facilities. The bacteriological problems related mainly to the need for improved operation and maintenance and replacing malfunctioning/old equipment."
Indiana isn't the only state to have wastewater problems at rest areas.
Last August, Ohio's environmental agency cited the Ohio Department of Transportation for untreated sewage at 10 rest areas in the northwest corner of that state. It also fined ODOT $150,000.
ODOT closed some rest rooms while it made improvements and agreed to hire two certified plant operators. It's also in the process of privatizing management of the wastewater and drinking water facilities at the rest areas.
INDOT has no plans to privatize operations, Kaderavek said.
Longer term, the transportation agency plans to spend "hundreds of thousands of dollars" on five new plants. Meanwhile, it plans to close wastewater plants at some of the 15 rest areas and connect the rest rooms to public sewage systems, instead. That's not always practical in some of the more remote rest areas.
"We're developing a 10-year plan for the rest stops. The goal is to provide stateof-the-art facilities," Kaderavek said, adding that tourism and truck parking needs also would be key to the plan.
The state already is in the process of rebuilding the Pipe Creek rest area on I-69 in Delaware County, where IDEM cited the northbound rest area. Each new rest area generally costs $10 million–or $20 million for both sides of a highway.
INDOT has been experimenting with more ecological-friendly ways to treat waste. At one of its I-70 rest areas in Greenfield, part of the waste is being pumped under a bed of vegetation, a process to improve the flow of oxygen and make treatment of waste more efficient.
The Joint Transport Research Program at Purdue University is conducting the research. Civil engineering professor Rao Govindaraju said it was too early to discuss results.
But so-called green wastewater treatment systems have been used effectively in other states, including the I-91 welcome center in Guilford, Vt. That system cost about $250,000 and was paid for mostly by a federal grant. It was decommissioned when the state built a new rest stop that was hooked to a public sewer system.
INDOT's Kaderavek said such green systems, at least so far, appear promising for treating only small volumes of wastewater. But, "We're continuing to look at it."
Govindaraju said wetlands are more environment-friendly, "but there are hardly any studies that have studied their efficacy in such unique conditions of high-strength wastes and high variability."