The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) has published its 2012 draft list of Indiana’s polluted waters. It’s a discouraging report, showing that lakes, rivers and streams all around the state aren’t meeting water quality standards.
Perhaps the most disturbing finding, from a human health perspective, is the presence of mercury in fish tissue at levels that could harm fetuses if their mothers ate the fish. IDEM identified 348 water bodies with mercury-contaminated fish, including both forks of the White River, the Wabash, the Ohio and Lake Michigan.
With waters in 71 counties on the list, the evidence of mercury contamination is so extensive that any water not on the list may be the result of inadequate sampling rather than the absence of contaminated fish. In fact, the samples used for the list were all taken before 2006. IDEM has more fish tissue data but hasn’t been able to incorporate them into the water quality assessments yet due to lack of resources.
While mercury may get into our waters from several sources, the main culprit — and the easiest to eliminate — is burning coal for electricity. Coal contains mercury, which goes into the air when the coal is burned, lands on the ground and gets into wetlands where it turns into methylmercury. In this form it becomes part of the aquatic environment and accumulates in fish.
In a study published last year, IUPUI professor Gabriel Filippelli found that mercury from the Harding Street power plant on the south side of Indianapolis is getting into the White River, posing a threat to people (especially women of child-bearing age) who eat the fish.
The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a rule to require coal-burning power plants to reduce the amount of mercury they release, but air pollution controls simply capture the mercury along with other pollutants. The pollutants may still threaten the environment when the captured fly ash is put into landfills or slurry ponds. The surest way to reduce the threat is to stop burning coal.
Several Indiana utilities are planning to retire some of their coal-burning generators, partly because of the E.P.A. rule but mostly because the age of the plants (they’re often 40 years old or more). In addition, the low cost of natural gas makes shutting down the coal burners the smart business decision.
Citizens Energy is switching from coal to natural gas for its steam plant just south of downtown. Indianapolis Power and Light plans to retire its smaller coal units at the Harding Street plant, but not for several more years and it wants to keep operating the main coal-burning unit there.
Perhaps its customers (that’s you, Indianapolis) can convince IPL to follow Citizens’ example and help protect our White River fish and the people who eat them by switching to clean sources of electricity like wind and solar.
Meanwhile, if you would like to know more about the state of Indiana’s waters, you can visit the IDEM “Impaired Waters” web page and learn all the distressing details.