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Welcome to Toxic Valley

Rockport, Indiana.

Crossing the Ohio River into Indiana from Owensboro, Ky., travelers are greeted with an image far more symbolic of Hoosier life than an “Indiana Welcomes You” billboard or a drawing of Abraham Lincoln, who spent part of his childhood just a few miles to the west of the William H. Natcher Bridge.

Indeed, the Hoosier state’s howdy dominates the horizon a couple hazy miles before the bridge, when fat plumes of opaque-white air pollution from the Rockport Power Plant first appear. The coal-fired plant’s twin cooling towers greet passing motorists with a hearty, “Welcome to Indiana, Land of Pollution.” Minutes up U.S. 231, the box-like AK Steel plant rises just off the roadway to the east, adding an exclamation point.

Between them, these two industrial facilities told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that they released nearly 26 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, water and land in 2008. In their Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) reports to EPA, AK Steel reported 19.1 million pounds, American Electric Power’s Rockport plant 6.7 million.

As John Blair, president of the Evansville-based environmental group Valley Watch has calculated, that’s more toxic releases from two Indiana industrial facilities than New York City, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Indianapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego, combined.

***

A county of 20,303, whose biggest town is named Santa Claus, producing such astonishing amounts of toxic pollution seems a storyline worthy of science fiction. And world-class toxic chemical releases are not part of the message local leaders like to convey. The Spencer County Visitors Bureau, for example, imparts visions of history, tradition and riverine splendor. Its logo boasts the motto “Legendary Faces … Legendary Places,” beneath images of Abraham Lincoln and Santa. Its URL is legendaryplaces.org.

Among the county’s main attractions are an amusement park; a world-renowned archabbey; a scenic drive along the historic Ohio River; a state park named Lincoln; and a national memorial on the 16th president’s boyhood home, where his mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln is buried.

Among the not-to-be-missed landmarks, according to the Visitors Bureau, are the “quaint river town” of Grandview, a bluff with a “spectacular view of the Ohio River,” a statue of Old St. Nick, a memorial forest, a catholic church named Boniface and a bridge named Boner. Also on the list — the courthouse and downtown area in county seat Rockport, population 2,032.

Spencer County is situated in Southwest Indiana, two counties east of Vanderburgh, home to Evansville, the largest city on the Indiana side of the Ohio. According to StatsIndiana, Spencer County occupies 399 square miles and has population density of 50 people on each.

The majority of its citizens are older; forty-five percent are at least 45 years old. The median age is 41.5; statewide it’s 36.8.

The county is almost exclusively white — 97.8 percent. And folks there tend to be married. Only 20.8 percent of Spencer County residents live alone, according to StatsIndiana, as opposed to 25.9 percent statewide.

In 2008, the vast majority of Spencer countians — 85.5 percent — worked for private business and industry, according to the U.S. Census. Their per capita income, $33,415 in 2008, was $1,128 below the state average. Their $53,781 median income, however, was $5,771 above.

Nearly a third of the workforce, 31 percent, earned $75,000 a year or more. In Evansville, that figure is 13 percent. Statewide it’s 15.5 percent.

* * *

Unexpected or not, the pollution in Spencer County is real, massive and highly toxic.

When two smaller industries on EPA’s TRI list — American Iron Oxide Co. in Rockport and N.O.F. in Santa Claus — are added, the county’s total environmental releases equaled 25.85 million pounds in 2008. That was roughly 1,250 pounds of toxins released into the air, water and land for every human living there, including 2,254 children age 5 or under.

And among the more than two dozen chemicals released are some of the most toxic substances known to humankind — lead, mercury, arsenic, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid.

The annual TRI reports, self-reported to EPA by the industries, identify two types of environmental releases at each facility: “on-site disposal or other releases” and “off-site disposal or other releases.”

On-site includes “emissions to the air, discharges to bodies of water, disposal at the facility to land, and disposal in underground injection wells.” Off-site means “discharge of a toxic chemical to the environment that occurs as a result of a facility’s transferring a waste containing a TRI chemical off-site for disposal or other release.”

The Rockport Power Plant reports TRI releases of 2.4 million pounds of hydrochloric acid, which Scorecard: The Pollution Information Site says is suspected of being toxic to the gastrointestinal, immune, musculoskeletal and respiratory systems, as well as the liver, skin and sense organs.

The power plant also reports 2.5 million pounds of barium compounds released into the air, water and landfills. Scorecard says these chemicals are suspected “skin or sense organ toxicants” that can “cause adverse effects on skin or the sense organs.”

A 2004 study from Public Citizen titled “America’s Dirtiest Power Plants” ranked Rockport’s mercury releases No. 4 in the nation. Mercury, Scorecard says, is a known “developmental toxicant,” which “cause[s] adverse effects on the developing child.”

AK Steel reported 1.72 million pounds of nitrate compounds released into the Ohio River in 2008. According to Scorecard, nitrate compounds can adversely affect cardiovascular systems, contributing to “a variety of diseases, including elevated blood pressure (hypertension), hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis), abnormal heartbeat (cardiac arrhythmia), and decreased blood flow to the heart (coronary ischemia).”

* * *

Spencer County’s toxic emissions are trouble for Ohio River Valley children. Altogether, its four TRI facilities reported the environmental release of 1.6 million pounds of seven developmental toxicants. The effects these substances can have, according to Scorecard, “include birth defects, low birth weight, biological dysfunctions, or psychological or behavioral deficits that become manifest as the child grows.”

According to data from the Indiana Department of Education (IDoE), Ohio Valley kids, who receive the most exposure to Spencer County pollution, are enrolled in special education at significantly higher rates than state or national averages. In the 2008-09 school year, according to IDoE data, 20 percent of public school students in the state’s 19 counties closest to the river received special education and related services. Statewide the average was 17.5 percent. In Evansville, it’s 22 percent.

Accounting for 83 percent of all special education students statewide, the five most common categories are Specific Learning Disabilities, Language or Speech Impairment, Mild Cognitive Disability, Other Health Impaired (OHI) and Autistic. OHI includes attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, asthma and lead poisoning.

The developmental toxicants Spencer County industries release into the environment are:

Arsenic compounds — 50,625 pounds;
Glycol ethers — 16,050 pounds;
Hydrogen fluoride — 402,120 pounds;
Lead and lead compounds — 60,925 pounds;
Mercury compounds — 1,292 pounds;
Nickel and nickel compounds — 317,984 pounds; and
Sodium nitrite — 764,389 pounds.

Scorecard explains some of the risks: “Maternal exposure to toxic chemicals during pregnancy can disrupt the development or even cause the death of the fetus. Exposure of pregnant women to mercury lowers birth weight and can cause severe brain damage in children. While developmental toxicity usually results from prenatal exposures to toxicants experienced by the mother, it can also result from paternal exposures.”

If state or county officials were to post an honest welcome sign on the Natcher Bridge, it would have to say, “Welcome to Spencer County, the Heart of Toxic Valley.”

STEVEN HIGGS can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.

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Steven Higgs is an environmental journalist and photographer living in Bloomington, Ind. He owns and operates Natural Bloomington: Ecotours and More. His new book A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana is scheduled for release by Indiana University Press on April 20, 2016.

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