Region makes strides on environmental issues

2011-02-20T00:00:00Z Region makes strides on environmental issuesBy Kathleen Quilligan, (219) 662-5331

The members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 697 have taken practicing what they preach to a new level.

Late last year, the union moved into its new administration and training headquarters in Merrillville, a building that is as green as possible, because union officials realized that's where their industry is headed.

"We want it to be a showcase for what we can do," said Ray Kasmark, business manager of IBEW Local 697. "It really is a trend, not a fad, the green thing."

The headquarters, which was built with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification in mind — complete with solar panels installed by apprentices — is an illustration of the direction in which Northwest Indiana is moving. From union headquarters to cleaning up a significant region river, 2010 was a year in which Northwest Indiana got a little greener and more environmentally friendly.

Kathy Luther, director of environmental management for the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, said one of the biggest achievements was for Lake and Porter counties to reach attainment status for the outdoor standard for ozone according to the 1997 Clean Air Act in March.

"That was a big achievement last year," Luther said. "It was a big environmental plus in our region."

Although she said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency likely would tighten the standard soon, the recent attainment status shows the region is moving in the right direction.

"For air quality, the challenge is to keep people motivated," Luther said.

She said education is a huge component to ensure the region meets tighter standards once they are announced. For example, Luther is on a mission to reduce idling cars. Instead of going through the drive-through at the bank, she said it's better for the environment to go inside.

In October, the EPA announced the first section of the West Branch of the Grand Calumet River was complete. The cleanup is part of a $33 million project funded by the Great Lakes Legacy Act and Indiana. The Grand Calumet River, Indiana Harbor and the ship canal have been identified as areas of concern on the Great Lakes — a severely degraded site where there is significant pollution — under the U.S-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

According to an EPA statement, about 77,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment was removed. Native plants such as grass, flowers, trees and shrubs were installed along riverbanks. In December, the next phase of the project, which will remove another 71,000 cubic yards of polluted sediment, began.

"There were also some pretty important water quality permits updated last year," Luther said, referring to two wastewater permit drafts released by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management in late 2010.

The permit drafts for ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor and U.S. Steel Midwest were released at the same time because both discharge water into Burns Ditch. Both permits hadn't been updated since the 1990s. As of press time, the final five-year permits hadn't been released, but IDEM has said the permits will not allow for any increase in pollutants discharged.

In 2011, Luther said NIRPC is rolling out a comprehensive plan that will have a lot of big environmental benefits. The plan will include having more walkable areas and making green spaces a priority in communities.

"To save the environment, people think you have to do a lot of really hard things," Luther said. "That's not true."

Luther said the plan is scheduled to be released in the spring.

"We're all in this together," she said.

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