Environmental regulators around the country monitored industrial air polluters a bit less than usual last fiscal year because of the pandemic. But for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, that monitoring dropped by 28 percent.
That's according to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General, which considered anything over 25 percent a "substantial decline."
George Czerniak is the former director of EPA’s Air and Radiation Division and worked in enforcement at the agency for 20 years.
“The effect is that neither the Indiana agency, the federal EPA, or the public will know — with any degree of certainty — whether or not the air is healthy to breathe," he said.
IDEM said it didn’t do any in-person evaluations at industrial plants in April because of the Stay-At-Home order. But it didn’t do them in May either after the order was lifted.
The agency also didn’t do any remote evaluations last fiscal year — something many other states turned to when they couldn’t be there in-person. Czerniak said it’s likely some IDEM employees were working from home.
“Which would give them the ability to do a lot of the off-site monitoring activities like reviewing data and monitoring reports," he said.
Join the conversation and sign up for the Indiana Two-Way. Text "Indiana" to 73224. Your comments and questions in response to our weekly text help us find the answers you need on statewide issues.
The report by the EPA OIG didn't compare the effectiveness of on-site versus off-site inspections. Czerniak said, in his view, there are many instances where on-site inspections aren't the best way to evaluate whether an industrial plant is complying with its permit.
"I look at on-site inspections as being kind of a grab sample of what's going on at the facility. You don't know whether the facility was in compliance before you arrived, you don't know if it was in compliance after you arrived, and maybe it was or wasn't during the time you were actually at the plant. So, an on-site inspection is some indication, but it does not tell you whether a source is continuously complying with the regulations," he said.
Czerniak said ideally state environmental regulators would use all their on and off-site tools to see if a facility is complying — but that's not realistic.
In an email statement, IDEM said it was able to meet all of its inspection obligations to the EPA and that the report didn't compare activities in each state's unique compliance monitoring program.
"IDEM continues to have a strong compliance monitoring program, even with the impacts of the pandemic, but we recognize that there were some challenges during this period and will continue to work with EPA to evaluate and implement the recommendations by the Office of the Inspector General," it said.
IDEM did not make experts available for an interview.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.