Indiana attorney general fights EPA rule that would reduce pollution on Indy’s west side

Indiana attorney general fights EPA rule that would reduce pollution on Indy’s west side
April 9, 2024 Mirror Indy

Enrique Saenz, Mirror Indy

Mirror Indy is a part of Free Press Indiana, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to ensuring all Hoosiers have access to the news and information they need.

Mary Gutierrez and her husband moved to West Indianapolis in 2019, drawn by the promise of an affordable home and large yard where their two daughters could play.

But the Gutierrez kids often have to miss out.

Their family is one of dozens living in a subdivision sandwiched between trucking companies and industrial facilities that emit the smell of rotten eggs and other pungent odors and kick up dust that covers homes and streets. That dust can be an irritant to their noses and eyes, and scar their lungs over time. What’s even worse, though, is that it signals a more dangerous pollutant — one that they can’t see called fine particulate matter, or soot.

Gutierrez said the smell and dust have gotten so bad that they often keep their kids inside. She doesn’t know what exactly is in the air, but she knows she doesn’t want them breathing in something that could potentially be harmful.

“We bought them a little playground set, and I don’t even want to put it up because the air just stinks,” Gutierrez, 31, told Mirror Indy. “It hurts that this can maybe cause damage for them in the long run.”

The Biden Administration is now trying to improve air quality in neighborhoods like West Indianapolis through a new federal rule that would help reduce the average amount of fine particulate matter pollution emitted every year by 25%. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the rule could result in $46 billion in public health benefits nationally by 2032, including thousands fewer premature deaths, lost work days and hospital visits.

The rule, however, could cost industrial businesses hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s especially true if they produce a large amount of fine particulate matter, which is a mixture of solid particles and droplets that can be made up of many different types of chemicals. The pollutant comes from things like smokestacks from power plants and industrial facilities, automobiles, construction sites and unpaved roads.

Saying those potential costs would threaten American jobs and pocketbooks, however, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita joined Republican attorneys general in 23 other states to ask a federal court to kill the rule before it takes effect.

Rokita’s office declined Mirror Indy’s request for a comment, but a spokesperson pointed to a social media post.

“Don’t let the name fool you — Biden’s new ‘air quality rule’ will not improve public health,” Rokita posted on X. “It will only raise prices for American consumers and ship Hoosier jobs overseas.”

The pollutant is smaller than a human hair and can enter the bloodstream, where it can cause serious damage to the heart and lungs or cause other health issues, such as developing certain types of cancer and a higher risk of death from COVID-19. University of Utah researchers have even linked fine particulate matter pollution to lower test scores for children.

Several of the biggest sources of fine particulate matter in Marion County are a short distance away from the Gutierrez family’s home. The pollution in Marion County has gotten so bad, the American Lung Association ranked Indianapolis the 13th worst city in the nation for particulate matter pollution.

Gutierrez said she and her husband knew the facilities were there when they moved in, but they didn’t know how bad they could make living there feel.

The couple is now expecting a new baby girl and say they are concerned about how their air quality could be affecting them and how Rokita’s intervention could prevent things from getting better.

“This is wrong,” she said. “Being exposed to these harmful chemicals is not acceptable. Our children are our future. There are a lot of regulations we need to follow. These corporations should have to, too.”

Opposing costs for polluters

The 24 attorneys general filed a federal lawsuit to prevent the rule from being implemented, claiming it is “unlawful” and that the EPA exceeded its statutory authority by issuing it Wednesday, March 6.

The heaviest emitters of fine particulate matter in Indiana — the Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc. and U.S. Steel steel mills — would need to spend more than $200 million to meet the new standard, according to the EPA.

Steel mills burn coal to produce coke, a main ingredient in the steelmaking process. Burning coal produces large amounts of fine particulate matter. According to Indiana Department of Environmental Management data, four of the top five sources are facilities in Northwest Indiana owned by Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc. and U.S. Steel.

Preventing the rule from taking effect would stop the air quality from getting better for people living near those steel mills, but it would also affect Marion County.

The EPA estimates that facilities in Marion County emit 11.9 micrograms per cubic meter on average per year. That means the county barely meets the current standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter. If the rule took effect, state government officials would be required to order facilities in the county to reduce emissions to meet the new standard of 9 micrograms per cubic meter.

Most of the top emitters in Marion County are on the west side of Indianapolis. Some, such as the Ingredion Inc. corn mill and the 1500 South Tibbs Ave LLC chemical plant are a short drive away from Gutierrez’s neighborhood.

Reducing the EPA’s power

It’s unclear whether the lawsuit to stop the new fine particulate matter standard will be successful, but environmental groups like the Hoosier Environmental Council believe the attorneys general could find judges willing to limit government agencies’ ability to write rules.

“That’s kind of been the trend,” said David Van Gilder, senior policy and legal director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “From the states’ standpoint, why not throw it up against the wall and see if you can find a willing judge to hear you out and say the agency has overstepped its charge under the Clean Air Act?”

Rokita for years has used his power as attorney general to support lawsuits chipping away at the EPA’s power.

He joined Indiana to Sackett v. EPA, in which the U.S. Supreme Court restricted which wetlands could be protected by the federal government. Indiana lawmakers have used the court’s decision to erode state protections for the state’s few remaining highest-quality wetlands.

Rokita also previously had the state join West Virginia v. EPA, which restricted the EPA’s ability to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the main driver of climate change.

The Supreme Court is currently considering other cases backed by Rokita that would severely restrict the EPA’s power to regulate polluters.

In Ohio v. EPA, the court could eliminate the EPA’s “Good Neighbor” rule, which restricts emissions from upwind states like Indiana, so that they don’t cause downwind states from failing to meet pollution standards.

In Loper Bright Enterprises, Inc. v. Raimondo, Rokita and other Republican attorneys general seek to eliminate a legal test used to determine when the court can allow a federal agency to interpret a law when Congress hasn’t specifically said what to do. The Republicans have argued that an agency should only be able to do what is spelled out in law.

Those decisions are expected in early summer.

Mirror Indy reporter Enrique Saenz covers west Indianapolis. Contact him at 317-983-4203 or enrique.saenz@mirrorindy.org. Follow him on X @heyEnriqueSaenz

Featured image: According to Indiana Department of Environmental Management data, AES Indiana Harding Street Station is one of the top air polluters in the city. Part of the plant is pictured Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. Credit: Jenna Watson/Mirror Indy


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