Much cleaner now, but still work to do.
by Rick A. Richards
For longtime Northwest Indiana environmentalists, years of hard work are paying off with cleaner air and water. Thanks to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1972, the grit that used to be a constant in the air is mostly gone, and the devastating fish kills that seemed to be a regular summer occurrence in Lake Michigan are gone, too.
Mark Reshkin remembers when the night sky over Northwest Indiana glowed red from the open-hearth furnaces operated by the region's steel mills. It smelled of sulfur and left sooty, gritty deposits everywhere. “When the sky was clear, that meant there was a strike,” said Reshkin, professor emeritus of geology and public and environmental affairs at Indiana University Northwest.
But as clean as the region is compared to a generation ago, it's still one of the most polluted areas in the country, according to an analysis released in August by the National Resources Defense Council. Indiana's electric sector was fourth in industrial toxic air pollution in 2010, even while reporting a 19 percent decline from the previous year.
“For too long, Americans have had no choice but to breathe toxic air pollution. Thanks to the EPA, the air is getting cleaner,” says Franz Matzner, associate director of government affairs for the NRDC. In overall pollution, Indiana ranks fourth worst on the NRDC's list, trailing Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Creation of the EPA was closely followed by what was called the ecology movement. “That led to the creation of the 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore,” says Reshkin. “But it took a long time to change. Today, large companies like NiSource have sustainable development policies, but it wasn't always that way.
“We have an educational component in measuring the environment,” says Kay Nelson, director of environmental affairs for the Northwest Indiana Forum. “When new rules came along we didn't used to have the level of people involved in the process that we do now. This has resulted in a better understanding of why things are put in place. I think it's a more holistic approach. We used to think it was OK to throw our waste into the water. That's all we knew how to do.”
A generation ago, environmentalists would have thought Kevin Doyle was wearing a black hat. Instead, the manager of environmental affairs for ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor in East Chicago is working with environmentalists to make sure the environment is cleaned up.
Doyle says the region's water has been dramatically cleaned up over the years. While Lake Michigan is cleaner than it has been in decades, he says the focus now is to get the Grand Calumet River and the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal cleaned up.
“The advantage in being a good steward is that life is easier when you're sitting at the table with everyone else instead of fighting. You don't accomplish anything yelling and screaming at each other,” he says.
Lee Botts has been an environmental activist in Northwest Indiana since 1959 when she joined the Save the Dunes Council. She's remained involved and is among the most experienced and knowledgeable people to discuss the region's air and water quality.
She's been honored by Indiana, Illinois and in Washington, D.C., for her environmental work. She's worked for the EPA, the Great Lakes Basin Commission, founded the Indiana Dunes Environmental Center and has testified numerous times before Congress about the environment.
“The change today is that industry is cleaning up voluntarily. They recognized the need for sustainability for the long-term health of the company,” says Botts. She is working on an independently produced documentary called “Shifting Sands,” that will detail the region's environmental history.
“There has been a tremendous improvement,” says Botts. “But I'm pessimistic about the future environmentally. Climate change is taking place. I'm somewhat discouraged because some want to alleviate some of the rules. I still think conservation is needed. This requires tremendous vigilance. We need to not only continue the cleanup that is taking place, but begin effort to restore our natural areas.”