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Great Lakes Article:

Law stalls efforts to monitor air toxins
Tammy Webber
Indiana Star

When monitoring machines detected high levels of vinylidene chloride in the air near Evansville in 1999, state environmental officials were concerned.

Repeated exposure to the chemical, used in plastics manufacturing, can cause liver damage, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it may cause cancer. But where was it coming from?

Three years later, officials still don't know. What's more, they don't have the authority to find out.

For seven years, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has been trying to write rules that would require industries to report emissions of a host of hazardous air pollutants and allow the agency to request information if it had a specific concern, like that in Evansville.

But after protests from industry, state legislators this year passed a law barring the department from requiring blanket reporting on toxins. Instead, the law required that reporting be tied to specific health objectives, that the department form a group with representatives from environmental and industry groups to work on the rule, and that the agency write a five-year plan for monitoring air toxins. It also forbade the agency to collect new data until 2004.

State officials say that ultimately, the changes will lead to a better plan. But in the meantime, the lack of a rule ties their hands in investigations like the one in Evansville.

"There was only so far we could go in our investigation," said Janet McCabe, the department's assistant commissioner for air quality.

Currently, the state requires industries to report emissions of six "criteria pollutants" -- carbon monoxide, lead, particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone -- regulated by the federal Clean Air Act. The environmental department proposed that industries begin reporting emission levels for 58 additional pollutants that are emitted at high levels in Indiana.

The agency wants the authority to request information on a particular chemical from industries within a given area or from a specific manufacturer, McCabe said.

Although the federal government requires that many toxins, including some the state wants to track, be reported to its Toxics Release Inventory, state officials have no authority to request specific information from companies that report to the inventory. In addition, some chemicals are not tracked by the federal list, and some industries that are not required to report to the federal government would be required to report to the state.

In 2000, the inventory showed that Indiana industries released 90 million pounds of toxins into the air. None reported emitting vinylidene chloride, the chemical found in Evansville, McCabe said.

The omission illustrates why the state wants to track specific toxins, she said. The state has identified 27 counties from which it wants more information.

"Indiana has high reported levels of toxic emissions . . . and many of them are identified as carcinogens or probable carcinogens," McCabe said. "There are some areas and pollutants we need to be concerned about."

But lawmakers wanted to ensure that the department didn't simply amass information without identifying specific health concerns, or with no long-term plan for how it would use the information, said state Rep. Jonathan Weinzapfel, D-Evansville. He is chairman of the Environmental Quality Service Council, a panel of lawmakers that considers environmental legislation.

"There ought to be a plan for how the information is to be utilized and how it is communicated to people," he said. "Instead of simply a data collection regulation, this is an opportunity to really create so much more that is a benefit to public health in Indiana."

Patrick Bennett, director of environmental affairs for the Indiana Manufacturers Association, said industry officials support efforts to protect Hoosiers' health. But they were concerned that the detail required under the department's original proposal would have been costly to compile.

"We didn't want them to collect a bunch of data that wouldn't be used for anything," he said. "The focus with us was on what they were trying to achieve in the reporting scheme. Let's go to a problem area rather than all industries in the state reporting to a finite level."

McCabe's office is expected to complete a final report on the five-year plan by the end of October. She acknowledged that even with the collection of additional information, there is no guarantee the state could directly connect health problems to a specific toxin or source because other things may cause similar problems. But that doesn't mean the state shouldn't try to reduce the risk from air pollutants, she said.

She noted that the EPA is considering requiring states to adopt rules to monitor hazardous air pollutants. Even with the 2004 date for collecting new data, she said, Indiana would be ahead of the federal effort. Only seven other states have implemented such rules.

"We feel it is our responsibility to determine if any risks remain to public health," McCabe said. "We think there are particular needs in Indiana that make it the responsible thing for us to do to move ahead and not wait for EPA on this."

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