Activists fear new list could harm river cleanup efforts
By Rick Callahan
Published February 16, 2008
NDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A shift in how Indiana compiles a federally mandated list of its polluted waterways has removed about 800 stretches of rivers and streams from that list, leaving environmentalists worried that it could hamper watershed restoration efforts.
State officials contend the new methodology has produced a more accurate picture of Indiana’s “impaired” waterways, and will allow them to focus on cleaning up those most tainted with mercury, PCBs and other contaminants.
But environmentalists say Indiana’s new approach is problematic because it’s “de-listed” parts of rivers and streams simply because it doesn’t have data on whether they are polluted.
Indiana’s move to base its list on raw data on contaminated fish has removed 805 portions of rivers, streams or lakes, down to 1,877 on its new list from 2,682 in 2006.
Rae Schnapp, the Hoosier Environmental Council’s water policy specialist, is concerned that the change could slow the restoration of tainted waterways because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses each state’s list as a guide to funding surface water improvements.
“This list is pretty important because it kind of directs their restoration efforts,” Schnapp said. “My concern is that it will reduce those.”
She said the change could also give the public the “highly misleading” impression that Indiana’s rivers and streams are getting cleaner, when in fact the state has no data on the segments it’s taken off its list.
Under the federal Clean Water Act, states are required to update their list of impaired waterways every two years. Indiana must submit its 2008 list to the EPA by April 1 for review.
The lists include rivers, streams or lakes that don’t meet water quality standards for mercury and PCBs from industrial pollution, E. coli bacteria from animal and human waste, and algae, nutrients and silt linked to agriculture.
Under its new methodology, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has moved to basing its tainted waterways list largely on raw data that tracks levels of PCBs and mercury in the tissue of fish caught in those waters.
Previously, Indiana’s list was based on the fish consumption advisories state health officials update annually to alert the public — chiefly women of childbearing age and children — that eating certain fish taken from some rivers can expose them to harmful mercury or PCBs.
Bruno Pigott, assistant commissioner for IDEM’s Office of Water Quality, said the agency made the switch because the fish consumption advisories don’t provide the level of data needed to determine the actual health of a particular waterway.
He said those advisories take into account the mobility of fish so that health officials can issue broad public health warnings for the state’s major rivers and streams even though they lack data for many portions of those waterways.
“The fish consumption advisory created a broader swath of assumption than we need for our list,” Pigott said. “We need to have precise data that shows impairment. And where we have no data we don’t make an assumption.”
Schnapp said the state should find some way to link the impaired waters list and the fish consumption advisories to assess overall river health because they’re based on the same data.
The most immediate consequence of Indiana’s revised method is that the state will no longer have to calculate what’s known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, for each of the 805 waterways removed from its list.
A TMDL is a measure of the maximum amount of daily pollution each impaired water body can receive and still meet water quality standards.
Dean Maraldo, the TDML program manager in the EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago, said Indiana’s new system is similar to methods used in Minnesota and Ohio.
He said the three other Region 5 states — Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin — base their lists on their fish consumption advisories. All six states’ systems comply with the Clean Water Act, he said.
“The new IDEM process is consistent with other state methodologies in the region,” he said.
The Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes opposes Indiana’s new impaired waters listing method because it has removed some northern Indiana rivers and streams that flow into Lake Michigan.
In public comments it submitted on IDEM’s new list, the group criticized the agency for its move and recommended that “impaired waters not be de-listed simply because IDEM lacks data.”
Many of the waterways removed from Indiana’s impaired waters list have been moved to a water quality category declaring that there is “insufficient data” on that particular section.
Amy Hartsock, an IDEM spokeswoman, said there’s no link between the number of river and stream segments on Indiana’s list and the amount of federal money — about $4 million each year — it receives to address its polluted waterways.
Schnapp said she hopes the state won’t ignore the river and stream segments stricken from the new list.
Pigott said some of the de-listed rivers will get tested in coming years because IDEM surveys rivers and samples fish tissue in a different region of the state each year.
“This doesn’t mean we’re never going to go back and look at those areas,” he said.