- Graphic courtesy of Environment America: Wasting our Waterways 2012
- Every two years, the state drafts a list of impaired waterways. E. coli, PCBs and mercury are among the most common impairments listed on the 303(d) report. Other water-quality issues, such as permitted toxin discharge, Superfund cleanup sites and the risks associated with coal ash sludge lagoons are tracked in other ways.
According to the most recent data collected by the state, the most common impairments to Indiana's major waterways include PCBs (a legacy toxin associated with past industrial practices) in fish tissue, E. coli, and impaired biotic communities.
State officials are encouraging people to submit public comment on the list, an inventory mandated by the Clean Water Act in which states compile a list of impaired waters that fail to meet the state's water quality standard. The comment period runs through July 29. IDEM is also accepting comments on the methodology it uses to compile the impaired waters list. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management and local watchdogs have differed on which pollutants should be included on the list.
The list plays a critical role in helping IDEM determine how to prioritize its enforcement and mitigation resources. Detailed analysis, however, is not currently budgeted as the department is more concerned with having the resources to pay for the staff to track basic monitoring requirements.
"In terms of mining the 303(d) list — its raw data — we need to mine the data for a better understanding of what is going on in our waters," said Jody Arthur, the integrated report coordinator for the Watershed Assessment and Planning Branch of IDEM's Office of Water Quality, in an interview with NUVO earlier this year.
"We lack a full-time statistician, which is the human needed to do the analysis. We have 30 years of fixed station data, but not an open position ..."
Arthur did note that officials are pursuing some analysis with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Still, with pollutants such as PCBs, the existing data helps officials to identify hot spots. IDEM staff is charged with random site visits and fixed-station monitoring, in addition to contaminant monitoring of PCBs/mercury and targeted monitoring, such as TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Load), which aim to limit point and non-point sources that worsen problems such as blue-green algae blooms.
Taking a look at the draft 2014 impaired waters list IDEM sent to the EPA on April 1 reveals the challenges officials have identified. It does not include other threats, such as the 78 coal ash ponds in Indiana, the largest inventory of any state in the country — that local environmental watchdogs such as the Hoosier Environmental Council and the Sierra Club's Indiana Chapter have adopted as a leading potential water quality threat after failed coal ash containment structures in other states have become environmental disaster areas.
The draft 2014 list contains over 60 lines of concern in Marion County, essentially assigning one of a handful of common sources of impairment to more than a dozen local waterways.
Arthur stresses that people should not use the impaired waterways list as a guide to safe waters for recreational use — pointing them instead to local health department advisories. She did advise people to take precautions to protect themselves from waterborne illness no matter what health advisories apply. She likened precautions such as handwashing and keeping one's mouth closed to wearing a seatbelt.
In addition to impaired biotic communities, E. coli and nutrient imbalance, algae concerns and "taste and odor" are also identified as areas of concern. Major league cleanup projects, such as the Superfund site at Keystone and Fall Creek to clean up legacy toxins associated with an old dry cleaner, are tracked separately.
Impaired listings are removed from the 303 (d) once a plan is enacted to address the contaminants.
Arthur also identified continued efforts to work with local farmers to keep animal waste out of creeks.
"It's not always the 3,000-head operation, sometimes it's farmer Bob with his three cows and chickens that aren't regulated and are in the creek," Arthur said.
If officials can prove the farmer is degrading the water, they can — different Hoosiers will prefer different verbs in this case — assist/compel the farm to address the issue.
"We often say, 'Hey, get your cows out of the stream!'" said Dan Goldblatt, an IDEM spokesman, noting officials see spikes on weeks animals are grazing in a pasture adjacent to the stream.
Though all the localized nonpoint pollutant sources are "difficult to regulate," Arthur added that Indiana has "come a long way" in terms of stakeholders notifying each other and collaborating on water quality issues. Among issues that exacerbate the current problems, Arthur cited," different regulatory schemes – that don't jibe together." Arthur complimented watchdogs such as Barbara Sha Cox, a Randolph County resident, who founded Indiana CAFO Watch and tracks permit and violation issues related to the state's larger animal livestock operations. "I'm thrilled Barbara is out there doing what she does," Arthur said. "It's great person to have a person on the ground where we can't always be. No agency can be everywhere all the time."
Another ag-related water quality issue is proliferating because of more stringent biosecurity regulations put in place to battle a virus that is decimating the state's hog breeding operations. Illegal hog truck washes are driving much of IDEM's ag-related emergency response this year, officials noted.
Regarding another reliable measurement of water quality — fish kills — IDEM estimated "about three fish kills" in the summer of 2013 and none so far this year.
When it comes to concerns about coal ash, Goldblatt noted: "What we can regulate, we do regulate."
Federal regulations prevent state officials from tracking as much as local activists would like.
Local watchdogs are concerned that existing regulation won't be enough to stop future iterations of the 2008 disaster in Tennessee when a coal ash sludge lagoon burst and released 1 billion gallons of the sludge into the Emory River.
Concerns were heightened earlier this year when the East Coast faced a new sludge threat. The difference between the Duke Energy coal ash pond site that ruptured and sent 30,000-39,000 cubic yards of toxin-laden ash into the Dan River in North Carolina on Feb. 2 and what is located here in Indiana is that Duke has "active, running plants" with Title V air permits and NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) permits, IDEM officials explained.
These permits open the state's only opportunity to address active pollution.
"They are on-site," Goldblatt said. "We don't specifically regulate coal. We are not legally allowed to. There is a stormwater outfall, so coal ash is part of the NPDES permit, so if it was leaking, we would address it."
Arthur also noted that IDEM is embracing data collaboration efforts focused on making more data, knowledge, images and maps available in an centralized clearing house compatible with open source systems that are every day revolutionizing the way people see the world around them.
To that end, she called more Hoosiers to aid both government officials and private groups in working to improve local water quality whether it be joining river clean-ups or taking a Hoosier Riverwatch training to learn more about water quality issues and contribute to the online data set of volunteer monitoring reports.
To review the 2014 303(d) list or map local impairments, visit in.gov/idem/nps/2647.htm.