A half-century of clean water laws has benefited Indiana lakes and streams, but still left them the most polluted of any in the United States.
That is the finding of the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project, which is advocating for stricter enforcement of the Clean Water Act on the 50th anniversary of its passage by Congress.
Tom Pelton, a spokesman for the group, said the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s most recent test of the state’s streams and rivers find that 73 percent of them — more than 24,395 miles — are impaired by agricultural runoff.
That is the most miles of impaired waterways of any state. The next highest are Oregon with 17,619 miles, South Carolina with 16,766 and Michigan with 15,708, according to the group’s compilation of state-based statistics.
Dr. Indra Frank, water policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the statewide totals include Northwest Indiana waterways, which also have been dumps for the area’s steel-processing and related industrial factories.
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She said a review of Indiana’s clean-water efforts show a mixture of improvement and deficiencies in policy that allow the state’s farmers and industries to make Indiana waters unsafe for swimming, drinking and other recreational uses.
“There is reason to celebrate progress. There is now less sewage and industrial waste than 50 years ago, but there are still loopholes that exempt strict enforcement of pollution caused by cattle manure, chemical fertilizers and coal ash,” she said.
She pointed to the Northern Indiana Public Service Company’s coal ash stockpile near Porter County’s Town of Pines is just one example.
Another example is the more than 100 cyanide and ammonia spills into Lake Michigan since 2015 by the steel mill at Burns Harbor that killed hundreds of fish. ArcelorMittal owned the mill through 2020; it is now under the ownership of Cleveland-Cliffs.
NIPSCO pledged $11.8 million earlier this month to continue the cleanup of contaminated soil and drinking water in Pines. And Cleveland Cliffs and the Hoosier Environmental Council are in the process of agreeing upon new measures to reduce if not eliminate future spills.
Federal authorities announced last month the commitment of of $1 billion over the next eight years to complete the cleanup of heavy metal-polluted sediments in the 16-mile-long Grand Calumet River, flowing through Gary, Hammond, East Chicago and south suburban Chicago.
Frank said another loophole that needs to be closed is the continued destruction of wetlands, primarily by suburban sprawl of new residential and commercial development into rural Hoosier areas.
The Environmental Integrity Project is recommending the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tighten industry pollution standards, reduce the amount of spills permitted by industry and use more modern technology to detect and eliminate violations.
Another goal: Boost state and federal funding of environmental regulators to make a reality of the Clean Water Act’s unachieved goal of 100 percent fishable, swimmable waters within the next decade.