INDIANAPOLIS — Every state wants to add more air-pollution monitors to ensure residents aren’t breathing harmful chemicals like lead or carbon monoxide, according to Angela Tin, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air-quality specialist of 25 years.
But in Indiana, the number of monitoring locations has decreased significantly since 2008, when the EPA started requiring states to submit their ambient air monitoring network plans for federal review.
Fourteen years ago, Indiana had 90 monitoring locations that checked for 180 pollution parameters. This year, there are only 73 locations inspecting fewer than 150 parameters. That number will reduce to 71 sites next year.
“It’s always a funding issue,” said Tin, who today serves as the American Lung Association’s national senior director of clean air initiatives.
Next year, an influx of American Rescue Plan dollars will let the Indiana Department of Environmental Management upgrade 10 monitors to 24-7 air-quality monitoring sites. Those 10 currently only provide data every few days.
The new monitors will deliver a better picture of the fine particulate matter in the air, which is important when determining pollution sources and links between observed health effects, according to IDEM’s monitoring plan.
IDEM is also investigating how new low-cost sensors can be incorporated into the monitoring network to provide more coverage across large areas, said Barry Sneed, a public information officer with the agency.
“The data provides a useful tool for planning and assessment for IDEM staff and provides air quality data to the public to help them better understand air quality in their area,” he said in an email.
Indiana also received $200,00 this month through a competitive EPA grant to conduct more air pollution monitoring in East Chicago to find where contaminates are coming from and how to reduce them.
In total, the EPA provided $53.4 million to 132 projects in 37 states for more air monitoring in communities disproportionately affected by environmental and health issues.
The federal funding boost comes after Indiana reduced IDEM spending about 20% from 2008 to 2018, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit watchdog organization. Staffing at the agency also shrank around 15% in that same period.
Tin with the American Lung Association said funding always plays a role in how well states monitor air quality, but fewer testing locations doesn’t necessarily mean less pollution data. New technology sometimes means testing sites can combine to detect multiple contaminants, which could lead to fewer locations, she said.
Other factors that determine the number of monitoring sites include data trends, population changes, new monitoring projects, issues with site access and site redundancy, according to IDEM’s website.
Factories or businesses that emit contaminants have to monitor their outputs and report those to IDEM, which provides site-specific data. Ambient air monitoring, on the other hand, is ultimately meant to determine trends in air pollution across the state, according to Tin.
Those trends show a mixed bag of progress and danger. Industrial air pollution is down across the nation, Tin explained, but pollution coming from cars, trucks, airplanes and other transportation is getting worse.
“There are cars everywhere you go, and they’re definitely cleaner than they used to be,” she said. “But the problem is that we have so many of them.”
Unlike with coal plants, factories or other industrial sites, the EPA doesn’t have the authority to regulate how people use their vehicles, making it a difficult problem to solve, Tin argued. That’s why the move toward no-emission vehicles is so important.0
“The EPA can’t force you to drive less,” she said. “They can’t force you to buy two cars or four cars and can’t force you to take the bus.”
Now, as IDEM looks at adding more monitoring sites and installs upgrades at others, the state could have a clearer picture of evolving air-pollution trends than it’s had in decades.
“Indiana has a robust outdoor air-monitoring network, and IDEM continues to invest in improvements to air-monitoring infrastructure,” said agency spokesman Sneed.