Indiana and Illinois are listed among the top 20 worst states for air pollution caused by power plants in a report issued by an environmental group Thursday, but leaders say the emissions are rapidly improving.
The report, "Toxic 20," issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council lists Indiana as the fourth-worst state for air pollution caused by power plants after Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania, respectively. Illinois ranks 16th.
The data used to compile the list was provided by the latest Toxics Release Inventory, collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency using 2010 data. The Toxics Release Inventory is a national database of toxic emissions from industrial sources.
John Walke, NRDC's clean air director, said the report showed air pollution caused by power plants in 2010 was down 19 percent compared to the 2009 data. The 19 percent reduction includes a 4 percent reduction in mercury emissions.
Walke attributed the reductions to the increased use of natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal and oil, as well as the installation of state-of-the-art air pollution controls by many utilities and the retirement of some older plants.
"The new EPA clean air standards are already being responded to by more progressive utilities," Walke said.
The State Line Energy coal plant in Hammond stopped generating electricity in March after its then-owner, Dominion Resources, decided to shutter the plant in lieu of paying for costly environmental upgrades.
NIPSCO is awaiting approval by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission on an environmental upgrade at the Michigan City Generating Station which includes the installation of smokestack "scrubbers" designed to reduce emissions.
The Michigan City proposal is similar to an ongoing $500 million project at NIPSCO's Schahfer Generating Station in Wheatfield.
Nick Meyer, spokesman for NIPSCO, said natural gas-fired plants such as the Sugar Creek facility in Terre Haute, which is owned by NIPSCO, are adding to the improvements in air quality as the NRDC cited in the report.
"Because natural gas is very low (in price), we've been maximizing that facility this year and much of last year as well," Meyer said.
While the improvements in national air quality are measurable, Walke said coal- and oil-fired power plants still contribute 44 percent of all toxic air pollution nationwide.
The group said the EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics standards or MAPs, finalized in 2011, are expected to reduce mercury pollution by 79 percent by 2015. The public health improvements are estimated to save $37 billion to $90 billion in health costs annually and prevent up to 540,000 missed work days per year, according to the NRDC.
"We're talking about major health benefits for all Americans," Walke said. "...Some utilities are already choosing to get the job done, which means others can do the same."
The Natural Resources Defense Council is an international nonprofit environmental organization with offices in the U.S. – including in Chicago – and Beijing.