Getting Greener Every Day

Companies' efforts are cleaning the region's environment.
by Rick A. Richards

A generation ago, Northwest Indiana was one of the most polluted regions in the country. And while the region's environment isn't pristine today, it's much cleaner than it used to be.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that all 92 of Indiana's counties were in compliance with federal Clean Air standards for the first time since 2007. One reason is because companies have embraced the idea that going green is good business. Think not? In the last 12 months, just two Northwest Indiana companies have spent nearly $1 billion to make sure they reduce pollution.

BP's refinery in Whiting is spending $400 million to reduce air pollution and Northern Indiana Public Service Co. is spending $500 million to install scrubbers at its Schahfer Generating Station in Wheatfield to reduce emissions. And in 2015, NIPSCO will spend another $300 million to do the same thing at its Michigan City Generating Station.

It took rigid enforcement of federal Clean Air and Clean Water statutes to convince both companies of the necessity of cleaning up the environment, but it's happening and companies are finding they can be profitable at the same time.

Kelly Carmichael, director of environmental policy and permitting at NIPSCO, says the new emphasis on cleaner operations is bringing the company attention. The utility was recently named to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, which promotes to investors companies that emphasize green practices.

“We are excited to be included on the list,” says Carmichael. For a public utility that generates virtually all of its energy through the use of coal, it's a notable achievement. “Coal generation for us is the cheapest option for our customers,” says Carmichael. “We've demonstrated, though, that we're committed to operating as cleanly as possible.”

In the late 1990s, NIPSCO began its move to sustainability by installing scrubbers at its Bailly Generating Station in Porter County. Scrubbers remove particulates from stack emissions.

But more than investing in scrubbers, Carmichael says NIPSCO has been in the forefront of operating electric vehicles and compressed natural gas vehicles in its fleet to reduce exhaust emissions.

Additionally, the utility is working to set up a network of electric charging stations so consumers will have more places to power up their vehicles. The utility also is working with consumers to install home charging stations. It's a program in which up to $650 of the cost is covered by NIPSCO. “It provides free overnight charging,” says Carmichael.

Already, two major shopping centers, Westfield Southlake Mall in Hobart and Lighthouse Place Outlet Mall in Michigan City, are setting up charging stations that customers can use. “Frankly, they're a bit ahead of us in this effort,” admits Carmichael.

Although NIPSCO hasn't made a major plunge into wind power, Carmichael says NIPSCO has about 200 megawatts of wind-generated electricity under contract, enough to power about 10,000 homes. “For now, we're not developing any new wind projects. Instead, we're purchasing that power from people who already have wind turbines.”

Carmichael says NIPSCO also is making options available to customers to buy their power from green sources and to receive power at off-peak hours. Both are designed to make electric generation cleaner and more environmentally friendly.

The emphasis on a greener environment also is being practiced at Fair Oaks Farms in Newton County. Earlier this year, the state's largest dairy announced it had converted its entire fleet of 42 vehicles to run on methane produced from cow manure.

That effort, says CEO Gary Corbett, should reduce the dairy's use of diesel fuel by more than 1.5 million gallons per year. “In any dairy operation, manure is an issue. It wasn't so much in the '60s, '70 and '80s, but has been since the '90s. There is concern about the odor, and then what do you do with it? One cow generates 140 pounds a day. We have 30,000 cows, so you do the math,” says Corbett, who adds that Fair Oaks buys its diesel in bulk at $2.45 a gallon.

It is out of such concerns that opportunities are found. “We're harvesting 100 percent of our manure three times a day and feeding it into an anaerobic digester,” says Corbett. That process has microorganisms feeding on the manure to create methane. The gas is trapped and pumped to fueling stations, where it is compressed before being dispensed into company vehicles.

Corbett calls the process a closed-loop system because what's consumed at one end is reused at the other, eliminating virtually all waste.

“This is greatly reducing our carbon footprint,” says Corbett, who adds that the dairy's tractors are now operated on compressed natural gas.

Fair Oaks doesn't plan to stop there, either, says Corbett. “Over the next couple of years, we're going to create more electricity than we can use, so we're finding all sorts of outlets for our manure.” That electricity will be sold so it can be used elsewhere on the grid.

As a result of the focus on becoming greener, new business opportunities have opened up for Fair Oaks. Corbett says the dairy is in the process of forming a new subsidiary to handle the energy generation business.

“In the future we are going to have to be creative and use more technology. There soon will be 10 billion people on the planet and we're going to have to feed them on the same amount of land we have now,” says Corbett. “We're going to have to double the food we produce. It's a challenge to us as food producers.”

Companies providing basic services such as lighting for factories, warehouses, schools, hospitals and municipalities also are going green. Retro-Tech Systems Inc. in Valparaiso has clients across the United States, says president and CEO Kurt Minko.

He says the movement has taken off in recent years because finally the engineering side of the business and the green side of the business are communicating with each other. “It used to be they didn't go about their business in the same way. But it's more popular to be green now and more than that, it's the right thing to do.”

By assessing a company's lighting needs, Minko says Retro-Tech is able to reduce pollution by reducing the need for energy and providing more efficient and longer-lasting lighting systems.

“We're finding more opportunities in the market. There is definitely a market awareness now that didn't used to be there,” says Minko. “The public is starting to understand energy-efficient lighting.”

Jeff Jackson, director of marketing, explains that Retro-Tech first does a full assessment of a company's lighting system. “We find out how it equates to the environment, put in all the statistics, all the measurements and give them our proposal.

“Every project is different, but we always give them a green message,” says Jackson. “A lot of what we try to communicate to clients is that in the end it is a win-win situation for them and the environment.”

Minko says clients are aware of the importance of being green, but too often they don't know where to start. “It's still confusing to some people,” says Minko. Most of Retro-Tech's clients are in the public sector–schools, universities and municipalities–and they seek help as a way to reduce their costs while providing the same type of service.

Although each project is different, Minko says that on average, Retro-Tech can reduce a client's electric lighting bill by 20 percent, and in some cases as much as 50 percent.

Jackson says that savings can be used by a school to buy new computers and other things that support education instead of paying the light bill.

Minko, an engineer who studied at Northwestern University, says he's always been interested in the environment. “Going green isn't new. We had solar back in the 1970s. We really don't have any new ideas, but better ways of using what we have,” says Minko. “There is a limited amount of energy in the world. I've always liked the idea of finding better ways to manage our resources.”

Northwest Indiana also is home to cutting-edge technology that seeks to measure how clean the environment is. Microbac Laboratories in Merrillville is involved in measuring water cleanliness as well as quality testing for agriculture, biofuels, consumer products, food and pharmaceuticals.

Robert Crookston, the managing director for the Merrillville office (Microbac is based in Pittsburgh and has 26 offices around the U.S.) and says the company's primary focus is environmental testing. “Since we're an independent testing company, we help with regulatory compliance,” says Crookston. That help comes at both ends, with private companies and with the EPA and other government agencies.

“Environmental stewardship is good business,” says Crookston. “We work with many major companies in the region and every one of them we deal with takes their responsibilities to the environment very seriously.”

A few years ago, environmental testing was an afterthought, but today, it's figured in as part of the cost of doing business. Crookston says that change in attitude has happened across the board.

“Today the planning process for companies looks at the amount of future capital they'll need. They know it's great, but they have a concern for the environment and know it's better to do it in the planning process than after the fact.”

Microbac does a substantial amount of wastewater testing, says Crookston. “Companies want to make sure it's analyzed so they can dispose of it correctly.” Gone are the days when companies would simply pump that water into a nearby river, pond or lake. “We also test material for reuse to make sure it's safe rather than sending it to a landfill,” says Crookston.

He has been in the business for 25 years, but grew up fascinated by science. “I was the kid who had the chemistry set and the microscope,” says Crookston. “When I learned I could get paid for this I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

One of the biggest changes in the business over the past 25 years is the emphasis on certification. Crookston says that when he started, no one looked at or cared about certification. Today, all 30 employees in Microbac's 13,000-square-foot lab in Merrillville are certified, and so is the lab.

“We're highly regulated and highly audited,” says Crookston. “We want to make sure we meet the strictest international standards. We think this has improved the industry.”

Over the next 25 years, Crookston says the environment will continue to improve and the assessment process will get better. “It's a declining market for us because we're getting better at what we do. Over the next 10 years, environmental testing will go down, but other kinds of testing will go up, particularly in food safety.

“That's going to be a game-changer over the next five years in the United States and around the world,” says Crookston. The reason for that, he says, was passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2010 by Congress. “That is going to spawn all kinds of new testing opportunities for us,” he says.

Even the most basic of environmental businesses is changing with the times and technology. Recycling itself is more efficient today, says Chris Kentopp, general manager of Republic Services of Northwest Indiana in Chesterton.

Kentopp has been in the business for 17 years and started as a truck driver for Able Disposal. Today, he oversees the region's operation for the recycling company that collects between 4,000 and 5,000 tons a month from homes and businesses in Northwest Indiana. “When I first got involved with recycling, it was being done because I think people had a guilty conscience,” says Kentopp.

It's not that way anymore. More people than ever are recycling, creating what Kentopp calls a huge increase in raw material. People receive rebates on steel, aluminum, cardboard and newsprint.

“With the investment we've made over the years in technology, we've eliminated manual sorting. Now there's lots of different technologies being employed. There are magnets to pull out steel, sorters that scan plastic and blowers that push paper into bins,” says Kentopp.

Once the material is sorted, Kentopp says, Republic sells to paper mills, aluminum processors and cardboard is re-pulped to make more cardboard.

“Ninety percent of the communities in Northwest Indiana have recycling programs,” says Kentopp. “What we've found is that giving people a capacity to do it (Republic supplies 96-gallon wheeled totes to homes) they are willing to recycle. That's so different than when I started. Then, it was a nuisance to recycle; it was a luxury.”

Kentopp says the average home collects 45 pounds of recyclables every week. He says Republic has learned from its customers that 80 percent think recycling is a good idea. Besides the Chesterton location, Republic also has recycling centers in Crown Point and DeMotte.

“I never imagined recycling would become this sophisticated,” says Kentopp. “I feel very good about it. It's right for the community; it's right for everyone.”

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