State environmental victories come in
hard won small steps
Special to the Courier & Press
Friday June 22, 2001

For environmentalists in Indiana, success and victories are often measured in small and rather increments. Such was the case last week at a hearing of the Indiana Water Pollution Control Board in Indianapolis.

The board had convened to consider adoption of a set of groundwater rules which would have for the first time in the state’s history, would have established numerical standards for underground water pollution. The board had been authorized to adopt such rules by a 1989 state law passed by the Indiana General Assembly.

Under the circumstances, one would think that any regulation so sweeping and important to the daily lives of literally millions of rural Indiana residents would be a good one -- one which might safeguard the drinking water of those who use wells from encroaching pollution sources. However, true to their usual performance, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management once again demonstrated that political pressure and the whims of enormous corporate polluters must be embodied in virtually any regulation it proposes.

In observing state and local government over the last twenty-five years, one learns to be particularly suspect whenever a piece of legislation or a regulatory action is whole-heartedly endorsed by corporate interests. This groundwater rule was no exception.

Appearing before the panel were Betsy DuSold of Eli Lilly and Co., Vince Griffin from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Nat Noland from the Indiana Coal Council, Patrick Bennett from the Indiana Manufacturers Association, and Doug Bley from Bethlehem Steel. They expressed only minor occasional reservations, seemed to have no problem with IDEM’s rule. One must suppose that they were quite comfortable with the 300-foot "groundwater management zone" (the region which the contamination would have to travel from the source before a violation of the rule would have occurred) or that the toxic ooze would have to leach a full ten-feet below the surface before violating the standards.

The utilities and the coal industry particularly appreciated the exemptions in the rule pertaining to mining operations.

But what really must have moved the board were the dozens of average citizens who have already had their wells polluted in one way or another. People such as Jim Walker from Brownsburg, a suburb of Indianapolis. He had his water tested by IDEM three times before they found dangerous levels of lead in his well.

After the third test, agency officials contended that glacial movements were probably responsible for the lead being in his water but he was never officially informed about the serious levels of the pollution in his well.

Also, there was testimony by Phyllis DaMota, Leslie Mendoza and Jennifer Kassarda from The Pines, a small community in Porter County. They recently learned that their wells are contaminated with dangerous levels of benzene, toluene, lead and arsenic, but little has been done to

identify the source of the pollution.

Celebrity attorney Jan Schlichtman whose life was immortalized in the film A Civil Action put it sustinctly. He stated that "Indiana is at a crossroads" (did someone see visions of a skull and crossbones?). It can either approve a rule which will allow toxic water pollution that will endanger the lives of Indiana residents similar to those in Woburn, Mass. whom he

represented, or go back and propose a rule which truly protects groundwater

for the future inhabitants of this state.

The climax of the five-hour hearing came when Rick Gidal read into the record the letter from Rep. Mark Kruzan and Senator Vi Simpson, the architects of the legislation in 1989. The entire atmosphere of the hearing changed. Board members started asking somber, penetrating questions. Serious discussion of certain terms of law and clauses occurred. It finally dawned upon the board that perhaps they were on the verge of making a serious mistake.

At the end of a long and exhausting day, those of us speaking against the rule won a small reprieve -- a delay of a decision until the next monthly meeting of the board.

While one cannot claim total victory in such cases, a delay is better than a decision. A bad rule was not adopted.

One can only hope that between now and the next board meeting Governor O’Bannon will have enough sense to withdraw this rule as he did the bad coal combustion waste rule last year.

Trouble is, with virtually the same people devising all these rules -- and the political climate in this state being what it is -- we who care must cherish and take solace in small victories and accomplishments.

David Coker is an Evansville free-lance writer.