Indiana's air, land and water are significantly cleaner than they were at the start of the environmental movement 40 years ago, but the state still has work to catch up with other states in enacting and enforcing the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, activists say.
The state has not done nearly enough to protect its environment and has essentially adopted federal rules "as their own" when it could impose tougher rules, said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.
"You take any of the basic ways of measuring environmental quality and we're not doing too well," he said, adding that Indiana has a reputation as "very slow to change."
The state has the Midwest's highest carbon dioxide emissions and the seventh-highest in the country, given its dependency on the automobile and the abundance of coal-burning power plants, Kharbanda said, citing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency statistics.
Despite that, comparing the environmental conditions of today to the 1970s, the state is "night and day better," said William Beranek Jr., president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Indiana Environmental Institute.
"We're now worried when we have a fish kill in the White River. Back then, we were happy to have fish in the White River," he said.
During the 1960s, air pollution in heavily industrialized northwestern Indiana was so bad that people avoided driving through Gary because of the stench and haze of pollution, said Lee Botts, founder of the Lake Michigan Federation.
"The sun might even be blocked out in the daytime by levels of pollution," she said.
Before Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, people and businesses dumped almost whenever and wherever they wanted into Lake Michigan, rivers and pristine wetlands. Pollution control was left to individual cities.
Since then, she said, pollution has been greatly reduced, but the biggest change has been in people's point of view — the recognition that protecting the environment is important.
Last year, for the first time since the early 1970s, all 92 Indiana counties met the EPA's health-based air-quality standards, but the Indiana Department of Environmental Management is fighting proposed tougher federal air standards.
IDEM Commissioner Tom Easterly asked federal regulators last month not to approve a proposed stricter standard for ground-level ozone, arguing that the standard for the precursor of smog produced by industry and automobiles would be expensive yet bring a minuscule reduction in death rates.
In a letter sent to the EPA, he cited the federal agency's own data in arguing that lowering the ozone smog standard to 0.065 parts per million would save the lives of about 3,600 Americans per year at an incremental compliance cost of $37.3 billion.
"The calculated cost per additional life saved of approximately $10.4 million does not keep the person alive forever, but actually extends the life for some undefined period," Easterly wrote.
Scott Deloney, chief of the programs branch of IDEM's Office of Air Quality, said Easterly was not arguing that cost-benefit ratio is more important than human lives.
Instead, he was merely invoking EPA's own data to make a point that federal regulators have failed to make a compelling case for the proposed lower standard, Deloney said.
He said the EPA is continuing to reduce emission levels "at a much faster pace in which we're in position to be able to comply with the standards."
Howard A. Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, argues it is also up to state officials to implement proactive regulations.
For instance, Indiana lags in imposing stricter standards on coal plants while other Midwestern states, such as Illinois, have adopted standards that require coal plants to reduce the amount of mercury emitted into the air and water by 90 percent by 2012. That exceeds the EPA requirement of 70 percent.