On Tuesday, the public is invited to attend the only local hearing taking place regarding a $274 million plan to upgrade a major Indiana power facility. It’s a plant that last year landed on a list of the 100 worst polluters in the country — a report published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center For Public Integrity, a group committed to investigative journalism.
The study cross-referenced two lists: the nation’s top 100 greenhouse gas polluters and top 100 toxic air polluters. Twenty-two polluters popped up on both lists — four of them from Indiana, which is home to more so-called super polluters than any other state.
One of the most polluting plants in the nation, according to the study, is owned by Indiana Michigan Power, headquartered in Fort Wayne.
Every time you flip a light switch, use a microwave, or charge your phone, I&M says about half of all that power in your home comes from coal — specifically I&M’s massive coal-burning plant in Rockport.
About 30 miles west in Evansville, some families allege the plant, and other nearby plants like it, are making them sick.
"We have usually weeks on end in the summer of ozone alerts," says Evansville mother Mallory Rodenberg. "I didn’t know this, but that’s not common in the rest of the country."
Rodenberg has two girls under the age of 4. She claims they were both perfectly healthy until this past July, when her eldest, Dafney, began gasping for air.
Rodenberg says the problems surface when Dafney spends a lot of time outside, and her struggle to breathe gets worse in her sleep.
"She wakes up with this dry, hoarse cough," says Rodenberg. "And she coughs so frequently and so hard that she can barely catch her breath."
Rodenberg says Dafney’s doctor wasn’t alarmed, telling her that her daughter’s condition is common in the area.
"To think that by choosing to live here," says Rodenberg. "That I might actually be doing irreparable harm to her health… is scary. And I know that I’m not alone in that. I know that it scares a lot of mothers and fathers."
"It’s always surprising to me when there’s no diagnosis of asthma," says Evansville preschool teacher Lori Salma. "But children are being prescribed asthma medication."
Salma says a high percentage of her students need inhalers and lung medications.
"I think a conservative figure would be 30 percent of them," says Salma.
The national rate of child asthma, according to the CDC, is less than 9 percent.
On ozone alert days, those students cannot play outside. Even on normal days, teachers say they limit outdoor time to 15 minutes — a cost in their quality of life, and one that hits home for Salma.
"We have to take these everyday or we’ll start to have problems," says Salma as she holds up two inhalers, both hers.
Salma and her son also suffer from asthma.
"It affects the daily life and lung development, and potentially the brain development, of every kid," says pediatrician Dr. Norma Kreilein.
Kreilein has extensively studied air quality and its effects on children.
"Ethically this is completely unacceptable," says Kreilein.
In 2015, the CDC found Vanderburgh County, which includes Evansville, and Spencer County,which includes Rockport, both had lower life expectancies than peer counties.
Last year, the National Institute of Health and the EPA published the results of a 10-year-study, linking poor air quality to shorter lifespans.
Also last year, medical studies at Johns Hopkins University and NYU linked toxic air particles, especially those emitted from burning coal, to premature birth. One of them ranked Indiana second in the country for the number of premature births due to air pollutants.
Among other things, premature birth is a root cause of a infant mortality — a serious problem for Indiana, which ranks as 9th worst in the nation. Approximately 150 children every year are buried in the Hoosier state before blowing out their first birthday candle.
"What is considered acceptable?" asks Kreilein. "Because Indiana argues that this is healthy. And they pull statistics that say they’re improving. But those statistics are not valid. The reality is our public health is not improving. Our infant mortality is not improving. And they refuse to even correlate it!"
"Many mornings throughout the school year, I’m looking across the western horizon and it looks like something out of a horror movie," says Rock Emmert, a high school English teacher in Ferdinand, about 35 minutes downwind from the I&M Rockport plant.
"You’ve got this brown plume all across the horizon," says Emmert. "From as far as I can see to the right, to as far as I can see to the south. And it’s this thick brownish-gray plume. And this can’t be healthy."
The 2016 special education corporation enrollment report from the Indiana Department of Education shows special needs rates in public school districts near the largest coal-powered plants range from 20 percent to more than 27 percent (the national average is about half that — 13 percent).
We asked Emmert if he felt there was a connection to the nearby coal-burning plants.
"Absolutely," answered Emmert. "Just critical thinking by itself, you can’t be 50th in the nation [in air quality] and have no impact on human health. As a state, minimally we should be investigating what’s going on here. What the root cause of this?"
Kirstin Ethridge, a recent college graduate from Evansville, developed asthma her freshman year of high school and she says she wasn’t alone.
"We would line up all of our inhalers in a row on the benches before we would go run, just in case," says Ethridge.
Every time she steps outside, she says she feels a burning sensation in her eyes and chest. And if she’s outside too long…
"It feels like somebody took a damp washcloth and put it over my mouth and held me down," says Ethridge. "And so there’s this weight on my chest, and every breath is really thick, and I just can’t get a good breath in."
"I don’t know that I’ve ever been this angry before about something going on in my community," says Rodenberg.
Rodenberg, Ethridge, Emmert, Kreilein and Salma all say they’re fed up. In Rodenberg’s opinion, something needs to be done.
"If you think about the definition of violence as doing physical harm against another person," says Rodenberg. "Basically what these super polluters are doing is committing a mass act of violence against our community."
Nearly 300 miles removed, we asked Rodenberg why Fort Wayne residents and I&M customers should care about the health impacts mostly felt in southwestern Indiana.
"If I were to sit in my car with my windows rolled up and my kids in the back seat and chain smoked a pack of cigarettes," says Rodenberg. "I would be considered a very bad mother. Just because this problem is centralized in southwestern Indiana doesn’t mean the rest of the country isn’t in the car with us."
ABC21 first interviewed I&M spokesman Tracy Warner last fall. That interview focused on the Center for Public Integrity report — which, again, ranked I&M’s Rockport plant the 6th largest greenhouse gas polluter in the nation.
"Well you have to put the emissions into perspective," said Warner. He suggested we set up our first interview at I&M’s new solar farm in Marion — it’s a pilot program for I&M, which Warner says is transitioning to renewable energy
"Sometimes the sun doesn’t shine," said Warner. "Sometimes the wind doesn’t blow, and we have to have enough energy available to power their needs. So at least for now, the way technology is, the Rockport plant is necessary."
But while I&M takes steps toward alternative energy, last year the company asked the state to approve a rate hike amounting to $274 million to install emission-reducing scrubbers at its Rockport plant — the second phase of a $495 million plan that would keep Rockport running for decades.
As we expanded our investigation, traveling to Ferdinand, Rockport, Evansville, and Washington to interview residents, we wanted to provide I&M an opportunity to respond to their concerns — and to those who blame the plant for myriad problems.
Kreilein is critical of the power company’s proposal to keep both coal-burning units running by installing the pricey scrubbers.
"Why wasn’t that done 20 years ago?!" asks Kreilein. "Why has that plant been operating all this time, without significant monitoring or analysis, and then now looking benevolent to upgrade?"
Kreilein also takes issue with Rockport’s response that the plant’s emissions are a result of its size.
Rockport is big — tied for 10th largest coal plant in the U.S. according to how much power it produces. That’s a point Warner stressed in both interviews:
"Because it is so large," said Warner in our second interview. "It does emit more emissions than smaller plants would emit."
Alexis Gray: "So is its size an excuse for the amount of emissions?"
Warner: "It’s a reason. I mean it does put out a lot of power. And the larger plants like that will have more emissions."
Gray: "Those emissions, they’re ones that the people who live down near Rockport, they say those emissions are making them sick."
Warner: "I&M is committed to following all federal rules and regulations regarding emissions, and those emissions, those rules are set up to protect the public health and the environment with an extra margin for safety."
Following the rules — a message Warner repeated three times in our 10-minute interview after our trip to Evansville.
"That’s using numbers that have no relevance to public health," says Kreilein. "If you basically start out smoking 10 packs a day, and you drop down to three, you’re still smoking an unhealthy amount."
We asked Warner about that and about the other families in Southwestern Indiana who say Rockport is making them sick:
Warner: "I&M’s employees work in the communities we serve and do business. Um, we have over 230 employees at the Rockport plant. They and their families live in the Rockport community and surrounding areas. We care very much about our employees. We care very much about their communities. You know, the federal government has spent a lot of time developing these rules and regulations and the very purpose of them is to address public health and the environment."
Gray: "About that public health, we have infant mortality rates above 10 percent. Male birth defects are five times the national average. And this pediatrician says the Rockport plant is responsible for that."
Warner: "Well you know, again we have over 230 employees in the Rockport area. We care about them and their community very, very much, and want to protect their health and welfare, and we are committed to meeting the federal laws and rules."
Gray: "So to be clear, I&M is saying it is not responsible for those public health issues?"
Warner: "I’m not going to answer that."
Warner did answer our questions about what would happen if I&M shut down the Rockport plant, and replaced it with wind and solar facilities:
"That would have been very, very expensive," said Warner. "About 10 to 12 times more than what we’re doing now. And it would have impacted customers’ bills."
"There is a complete disconnect with what potentially the people in Fort Wayne would like on their electrical bills," says Kreilein. "And what we are paying for in earlier death, prematurity, autism and health problems."
I&M is not the only utility company facing blowback.
Soon after the Center for Public Integrity published its study, NIPSCO announced plans to shut down four coal-burning plants, cutting its dependence on coal in half.
That decision was made in part due to public outrage and concern about emissions and public health — concern echoed by some pediatricians, local scientists and environmental advocates, some of whom question I&M’s influence on its own regulation.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management claims Indiana meets federal rules regarding toxic air particles — a claim Kreilein, and now the International Congress of Pediatrics, say the state cannot possibly make because of, in their opinion, "serious scientific flaws."
IDEM publishes maps of its air pollution monitors. Most of them are nowhere near coal country in southwestern Indiana. Instead, they appear clustered in central and northern Indiana.
"All they have to do is meet some target," says Kreilein. "And it doesn’t have anything to do with whether it affects health and what is going on. That is the problem. And they literally won’t talk about it when they’re confronted."
For years, Kreilein has called on IDEM, to more closely monitor coal plant toxic emissions, and for the state to study the impact on public health. She isn’t alone on her claim.
In 2014, a nurse e-mailed officials at IDEM’s Office of Air Quality, concerned about a possible link between the infant mortality rate and coal plant emissions. She asked what his office was doing to explore the issue.
Keith Baugues, the assistant commissioner of IDEM’s Office of Air Quality, responded, "Unfortunately, HEPA (sic) laws prohibit me from accessing data so I could compare infant mortality rates and power plant or other emissions or air quality. Therefore we cannot make a direct correlation between the two." (The proper abbreviation for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is HIPAA).
"As a government, as a policy, electrical utilities are unaccountable to what actually happens in the trenches," says Kreilein. "Unaccountable! They are unmonitored, unanalyzed, and the obvious results that are there are forbidden to being linked."
Electric utilities grace the top of the list of donors to Indiana state elections.
American Electric Power — I&M’s parent company — has the ear of the state legislature. The utility giant most recently contributed more than $480,000 to help Indiana lawmakers get elected.
A notable beneficiary is state Rep. Heath VanNatter, vice chair of the House Utilities and Energy Committee, who received $15,600 in campaign contributions from AEP. The committee chair, Rep. Eric Koch received $10,500 in campaign cash from AEP.
We reached out to VanNatter’s press secretary for an interview. He replied that he was "unable to facilitate this request due to its political nature."
"I don’t even want to think about what’s going to happen if it’s deregulated further," says Kreilein. "How high does our infant mortality have to go?"
"Here’s a chance to actually do something big at the global level here in Northeast Indiana," says Louis Weber, the head of the University of Saint Francis Biology and Environmental Science Department. here in Northeast Indiana."
Weber is among those who say Fort Wayne can make a difference.
"We’ve got a chance now — the customers," says Weber. "We have the power. We can tell I&M: we want something different."
For both sides of the argument, it will be a decision with far-reaching consequences that will last for decades.
Tuesday’s public hearing on I&M’s Rockport plant proposal begins at 6 p.m. in the Homestead High School Community Room. Consumers are encouraged to comment on the plan. The hearing is open to the public.
ABC21 will have coverage of the hearing on newscasts airing at 5, 6 and 11 p.m.