INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana’s environmental agency has pulled funding for a
statewide network that monitors air and water for mercury as part of budget
cuts that activists say will hinder efforts to track the toxic metal.
The move shuttered five precipitation monitoring stations that had been part
of a national string of more than 100 precipitation-collection monitors. The
scientist who oversees that network believes Indiana’s five stations are the
most ever closed by a state.
“It’s a shock to our system — it’s left a big hole in the Midwest,” said Dr.
David Gay, coordinator of the National Atmospheric Deposition Program, a
scientific cooperative with more than 200 federal, state and university
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in the food chain and can
pose a threat to humans who eat fish tainted with the metal. It poses its
greatest threat to the developing brains and nervous systems of small
children, said Jodi Perras, executive director of Improving Kids’
Environment, an Indianapolis-based group that first learned of the
monitoring station shutdowns.
“It’s not just an environmental issue — it’s definitely a health issue, an
issue that effects us all,” Perras said.
The primary source of mercury in the environment is industry, particularly
coal-burning power plants like those that Indiana relies on for more than 95
percent of its electricity.
The state’s five precipitation monitors, in place since 2000, have recorded
some of the highest mercury levels in rain and snowfall in the nationwide
network. And many of Indiana’s waterways are listed as “impaired” because of
mercury and other pollutants in their waters.
Activists from six Indiana environmental and conservation groups urged the
Indiana Department of Environmental Management in a recent letter to restore
the $285,000 needed to operate the five precipitation monitoring stations
and another 25 stream monitoring stations that aren’t part of Gay’s network.
Without them, they said, Indiana won’t be able to track mercury levels under
new regulations to control mercury emissions from power plants that the
Obama administration is developing.
IDEM spokesman Rob Elstro said the agency’s decision to end its joint
funding agreement with the U.S. Geological Survey will help “offset the
state’s reduced income.” Gov. Mitch Daniels has made repeated requests for
state agencies to cut their budgets due to sluggish state revenue.
Elstro said IDEM could not find alternative funding sources for the
monitors, which last recorded data in December and January.
USGS scientist Martin Risch said the agency had proposed contributing
$285,000 to continue monitoring at the 30 stations this year, and that IDEM
would have had to provide the same amount.
He said the federal agency has arranged for the National Park Service to
fund data-collection at a precipitation station at the Indiana Dunes in the
state’s northwestern corner. No funding is in sight yet for the 29 other
Kim Ferraro, a Valparaiso attorney for the Legal Environmental Aid
Foundation, called the state’s move “a favor to refineries and coal
companies.” “Clearly, the less data we have to substantiate what pollutants
are in the air, the less is required of industries who emit those pollutants
to reduce those emissions,” Ferraro said.
Alexis Cain, an environmental scientist with the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency in Chicago, said Indiana was under no obligation to fund
the monitoring stations.
Still, he called it “unfortunate” that all of Indiana’s monitoring stations,
including the 25 stream monitoring stations that had been operating since
2004, were shuttered.
He said the stations help scientists understand the trends in mercury levels
in the atmosphere and waterways and to model the potential impact of reduced
mercury emissions. Cain said the EPA is working with the USGS to help it
find a new funding partner to reactivate Indiana’s stations.
Gay said the network he oversees has never lost so many stations at one time
in the seven years since he became program coordinator. “To lose five at
once is tough,” he said.