Region breathing easier as air quality improves

2014-03-16T00:00:00Z 2014-03-16T00:24:07Z Region breathing easier as air quality improvesLauri Harvey Keagle lauri.keagle@nwi.com, (219) 852-4311 nwitimes.com

Northwest Indiana has a reputation for poor air quality from heavy industry and auto emissions, but studies show the the region's emissions are improving.

"The risk of living in Northwest Indiana is no higher than living in any other (similar) area in the U.S.," Thomas Easterly, Indiana Department of Environmental Management commissioner, said last summer. "The risks are not high. In fact, they're lower than we thought they were."

In the summer of 2013, IDEM issued the Lakeshore Air Toxics Study, showing health risks caused by air pollution from industries are not as bad as once believed.

Previous studies showed elevated levels on air toxin concentrations in Lake and Porter counties, particularly near schools. The IDEM report showed lifetime cancer risk from exposure to permitted facilities and the overall lifetime cancer risks were less than those found in 2005 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports.

Some of the improvements may be due to industrial emission reductions.

NIPSCO's new scrubber at the R.M. Schahfer Generating Station in Wheatfield began operations in  December as part of a $739 million pollution control project at the utility's generating stations.

The scrubber removes air pollutants from emissions at the station. A second scrubber is expected to be operational in the Schahfer station in the fall and another scrubber is planned for the Michigan City Generation Station in 2016.

NIPSCO hopes to have an 80 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions and a 35 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions once the projects are complete.

The moves followed a settlement with the U.S. EPA and IDEM centered on Clean Air Act violations.

While industry is working to reduce emissions, auto emissions remain. South Shore Clean Cities is working to help keep those air toxins down.

"Most of our air quality issues are not caused by the mills, it's us as commuters, railroads, trucks," Carl Lisek, executive director of South Shore Clean Cities said.

Clean Cities is administered by the U.S. Department of Energy to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil and petroleum consumption in transportation while promoting environmental and energy independence by using alternative fuels.

Lisek's group recently partnered with Franciscan St. Margaret Health in Dyer and Hammond and Franciscan St. Anthony Health in Crown Point for a $52,000 grant from BP to reduce ambulance emissions outside emergency rooms.

"This separates Northwest Indiana from other areas of the country," Lisek said. "This will definitely eliminate emissions and help with asthma awareness."

Lisek said the School City of East Chicago is also adding propane-powered school buses to its fleet in time for the 2015-2015 school year.

"This will save taxpayers money, help kids to breathe easier and no one will be able to tell it's a bus operating on propane," Lisek said. 

Kathy Luther, director of environmental programs for the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, said her group partners will clean cities for the Green Fleets Program. The federally-supported program, provides education, training and technical support to fleet operators to reduce air pollution.

The project has allowed for the retrofitting of 76 school buses and 46 dump trucks in the region in the last three years, Luther said.

Luther touted the benefits of the Partners for Clean Air Program for helping to keep air pollution in check.

NIRPC also partners with IDEM's Northwest Regional Office in Valparaiso to implement the voluntary program in which organizations develop an air quality action plan to implement on air quality action days from May to October. The days occur on sunny, hot, still days when ozone levels are expected to reach unhealthy levels.

"These plans can be as simple as notifying employees to as complicated as altering work and maintenance schedules," Luther said.

More information about local clean air programs is available online at www.nwicleanair.com.

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