Environmental Victories Come In Very Hard-won Small Steps
The board had convened to consider adoption of ground water rules that, 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 law passed by the Indiana General Assembly.
Under the circumstances, one would think any regulation so sweeping and important to the lives of millions of rural Indiana residents would be a good one - one that might safeguard the drinking water of those who use wells from the encroaching
However, true to its usual performance, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) again demonstrated that political pressure and the whims of corporate polluters must be embodied in virtually any regulation it proposes.
In observing state and local government over the last 25 years, one learns to be suspicious whenever legislation or regulatory action is en-dorsed by corporate interests. The ground water rule is no exception.
Appearing before the panel were representatives of Eli Lilly and Co., the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Indiana Coal Council, the Indiana Manufacturers Association and Bethlehem Steel. They expressed only minor, occasional reservations and seemed to have no problem with IDEM's rule.
One must suppose that they were quite comfortable with the 300-foot ground water management zone (the region through which the contamination would have to travel from the source before a violation of the rule occurs) and that the toxic ooze would have to leach a full 10 feet below the surface before violating the standards.
The utilities and the coal industry appreciated the exemptions in the rule pertaining to mining operations. Considering the outrageous infractions recently identified by southern Indiana residents, this is no surprise.
But what really must have moved the board were the dozens of average citizens who have already had their wells polluted - people such as Jim Walker from Brownsburg, a suburb of Indianapolis. Walker had his water tested by IDEM three times before it found dangerous levels of lead in his well. After the third test, agency officials contended that glacial movements were probably responsible for the lead 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 Schlichtmann, whose life was immortalized in the film A Civil Action, stated that "Indiana is at a crossroads." (Did someone see visions of a skull and crossbones?) It can either approve a rule that 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 that truly protects ground water for the future inhabitants of this state.
The climax of the five-hour hearing came when Rick Gidal read into the record a letter from state Rep. Mark Kruzan and state Sen. Vi Simpson, the architects of the legislation in 1989. Then 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 it was 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 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, Indiana Gov. Frank 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.