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NUVO at 25: The great green rollercoaster

25 years of environmental ups and downs in Indiana



For NUVO's anniversary issue, we decided to take a look at the last 25 years of environmental ups and downs in Indiana by speaking with the state's experts.

The unnerving consensus is that Indiana's progress can't be measured on a linear scale. Environmental progress is always at the mercy of the current administration's ideology, the elected official's vote, the corporation's status quo and the lobbyist's reach. However, it's not all doom and gloom. Progress, even at a snail's pace, matters.

The past

Grant Smith, a longtime utility-consumer advocate and senior energy policy adviser at the Civil Society Institute, started his career in environmental policy change in 1982. Beginning as a canvasser of a newly created organization Citizens Action Coalition, Smith worked on the recently formed Toxic Action Project, which worked on industrial toxics.

At that time, Smith said hardly anyone was thinking about environmental stewardship in Indiana.

Grassroots environmental protection and advocacy organizations in the state were new, and somewhat disjointed. Smith began tackling the popular issue at the forefront of environmental protection in Indiana and across America: industrial toxic pollution. The Love Canal case had gotten national attention after resident Lois Gibbs learned her son's elementary school and her neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y. were built on a toxic waste dump.

"The landfills were leaking all over the place. There had been no real regulation when the dumps were created," Smith said.

Smith eventually wrote a bill creating the Clean Manufacturing Technology Institute at Purdue University to help Indiana manufacturers reduce toxic pollution from their facilities. By the time the bill came to a vote in 1990, it had support from the Chamber of Commerce and the Indiana Manufacturers Association.

Then, with the support of the recently created Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), he worked with industries around the state such as RV manufacturers and wood finishers. He not only reduced their toxic releases into the air, water and land, but he improved their operational efficiencies and saved money.


"It was wildly successful. We saved companies millions and millions of dollars. It eliminated huge amounts of emissions. It made the companies more profitable. There's huge institutional biases at companies about the way they've done things, but we looked at what we could change to make it more efficient and cleaner," Smith said.

Practicality, at the time, was a key factor to changing the status quo of the manufacturing businesses, but it helped to have dedicated bipartisan lawmakers making the right decisions for their constituents.

"We were generally working with conservative people with conservative outlooks that were generally pissed off," said Smith, realizing that he had to present environmental solutions as good business.

In the '80s, the idea of environmental protection was popular, because lawmakers, businesses and citizens together were in it for the greater good, but the honeymoon phase didn't last for long.

He said the statehouse today is different. It's not as much as a bipartisan rally for the greater good, but a competition of who's the bigger dog in the room.

"Today at the statehouse, I refer to it as energy policy by golf outing," Smith said.

The present

No matter how difficult efforts are at the statehouse, that doesn't stop the growing number of people who care about water quality, air quality, renewable energy and climate change.

As former managing editor of NUVO for 20 years, Jim Poyser has witnessed the growth of the environmental stewardship movement. After decades of editing and reading about the work of environmentalists, Poyser was inspired to take action. Poyser left his job at NUVO and became executive director of Earth Charter Indiana, spending his time with Indiana youth to engage young people in climate leadership and sustainability solutions.

Poyser touts the power of people acting together to solicit change.

A Stanford poll taken in 2013 reported that 73 percent of Indiana residents believe that the government should take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. businesses. That's more than 4.7 million people in Indiana alone who believe that "business as usual" is the wrong course of action.

"From my perspective, we are playing defense in trying to stop the very worst things from happening. By collaborating ... we can actually achieve success in the statehouse," Poyser said.

Like Poyser, Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, has also seen a positive shift in grassroots activism.


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