September 2015: Air Quality Expectations

On August 16, 2015, the Indianapolis Star published a letter to the editor from Denise Abdul Rahman, who is the Environmental Climate Justice Chair for the Indiana NAACP. In the letter, Ms. Rahman states that 71 percent of African-Americans live in districts in violation of air quality standards. Ms. Rahman confirmed that the “71 percent” was a national number, because in Indiana, I found that our number is between 16 and 17 percent.

It is the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s (IDEM’s) goal and mission to make sure that all Indiana citizens have clean air to breathe. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) established National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to protect all citizens.

Of the 16 to 17 percent of minorities that I estimate are affected in this state, most live in three townships in Marion County that are currently designated non-attainment for sulfur dioxide (SO2). Both of the major sources of SO2 in the downtown Indianapolis area will be converting to natural gas next year. At that time, these areas should not be experiencing sulfur dioxide levels that are above the standard. While it will take several more years to get an official attainment designation of the area, our citizens should have the advantage of the cleaner air by the start of 2017.

IDEM recently did a study looking at air toxics in Northwest Indiana. The source that posed the highest risk to the public was not steel mills or a refinery; it was emissions from automobiles. Residents can work with local government to time traffic lights in their area and to minimize idling vehicles. This will provide relief from these pollutants. The other option is to work with local industries to get voluntary emission reductions to improve local conditions, but these conditions, which go beyond current state and federal rules, cannot be enforced by IDEM.

Ms. Rahman’s letter also talked about carbon pollution from utilities. To be clear there are two carbon pollutants from combustion sources. The first is carbon monoxide. U.S. EPA established this pollutant as a criteria pollutant, and a NAAQS has been in place since the early 1970s. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, has only recently been considered a pollutant. It does not have a NAAQS. In fact, for carbon dioxide to have a direct impact on health, it must be seen at levels that are more than a thousand times higher than currently measured ambient levels. While carbon dioxide is considered a greenhouse gas that raises global temperatures, it would not have health impacts on people that live near utilities.

Ms. Rahman is calling for IDEM to develop a plan under the Clean Power Plan to lower carbon dioxide emissions. I believe that carrying out such a plan may increase utility rates 15 to 20 percent in Indiana. It is the poor and those on fixed incomes that can least accept these kinds of increases in their electric rates. IDEM must carefully craft a plan that will meet the requirements of the rule, but will minimize costs to Indiana’s citizens and businesses. We will need stakeholder input as this process continues. It will not be an easy task.