New IDEM Commissioner Tom Easterly is candid about the political naiveté he brings to the job as head of the state agency charged with protecting Indiana citizens from environmental threats.

"There's a lot of things I don't know about on the political side of the world," Easterly said during an interview in his 13th floor office in the Indiana Government Center North in Indianapolis. "I tell people that's my advantage and my disadvantage. I don't know anything about politics." He hangs on "anything" for emphasis.

Indeed, at times throughout the hour-long discussion, Easterly sounds like a political neophyte. He wasn't quite sure about the name of the committee he testified before this year — Senate Finance, one of the most powerful in the Legislature. And he thinks that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) can make significant progress improving Indiana's environment with the resources it has.

"I don't think we have a resource problem," he says. "I think we have an efficiency problem."

That sanguine assessment of IDEM's capacities seems a bit more than naïve when juxtaposed against the scope of Indiana's challenges.

"Indiana has been ranked 48th of the states in environmental quality," former Hoosier Environmental Council Board President Jack Miller wrote in the Summer 2003 HEC Monitor, citing data from the "Gold and Green Report 2000" from the Southern Institute Studies. "That's a short statistic, but it says a lot about how we Hoosiers have neglected our home place."

If he's "a little bit wrong," Easterly says, he will get more resources to get the job done. "I can't get double resources, but if I need a few percent here and there, and I make a good case for them, and I show where I'm saving money somewhere else, I think I'll get it," he says.

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If Easterly's candidness about his political shortcomings is refreshing, his willingness to admit that he doesn't know everything or may be wrong sometimes is downright quaint. He qualified statements with those provisos multiple times throughout the conversation.

"John Blair asks me why there is more asthma in Evansville than in Fort Wayne," he says, referring to the president of the Evansville-based environmental group ValleyWatch. "I don't know the answer to that."

It's a question whose answer is pertinent to citizens in Bloomington, which is located roughly a hundred miles downwind from Southwest Indiana's coal-burning power-plants, which include some of the nation's dirtiest. A multi-state, 1997 study that IDEM participated in and endorsed showed that wind currents can carry ozone-causing chemical emissions from such plants 250 to 300 miles.

Ozone, which forms on hot, muggy, sunny summer days, makes breathing more labored for the very young, the very old, and those who suffer from lung diseases like asthma and emphysema. It lessens their quality of life.

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While Easterly and Blair do not agree on how to reduce air pollution from these sources, they find common ground on one of the causes. "A big piece is indeed the power plants," Easterly says.

Among the solutions, he argues, is passage of the Bush administration's Clear Skies Initiative.

"We, my boss and I, lobbied for the Clear Skies," he says. "I think the right way for a state like Indiana is a good, national program that puts everybody on a level playing field with substantial emission reductions."

Easterly's boss is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, the first Republican governor to appoint an IDEM chief in 16 years. Daniels is a former Eli Lilly executive and former budget director for George W. Bush.

Easterly maintains that emissions reductions from Clear Skies would be improvements that need to be made, even if they are not the maximum achievable. Too much time has been spent arguing over what is the ideal solution while the pollution continues, he says.

Another solution to air pollution and other environmental problems in Indiana, Easterly maintains, is to build new, environmentally sound industrial plants that can displace older, dirty facilities, like the Southwest Indiana power plants. He and Daniels are looking for someone to "step up to the plate" and build a new, clean-coal power plant somewhere in Indiana.

"We'd really like to see if that works," he says. "What kind of levels you could actually achieve in practice? We'd like to be a leader there."

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Conservation and renewables are important and should be options for those who wish to pursue them, Easterly says. But he doesn't see them as solutions.

"Maybe you can, but I don't know how you can conserve your way into the amount of energy that a major industrial facility would need, for example, to actually make something," he says. "You can certainly cut your own bill, which is a very positive thing, and cut the load on the system on those hot summer days. ... All those things are positive. ... Alternative technologies are okay, but they're really quite expensive right now."

Two alternative energy sources that Easterly does see the state embracing are ethanol and soy biodiesel.

"The agriculture department sees soy biodiesel as a major way to increase demand for soybeans in the state of Indiana," he says. "And that's good."

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Easterly says another issue he will target for action is combined sewer overflows (CSOs), through which billions of gallons of untreated human and animal waste flush into Indiana waterways from more than 100 communities every year. By design, these systems release untreated sewage and stormwater runoff into rivers, creeks, and streams when sewer lines get overburdened. In many places, that occurs with less than an inch of rain.

Regulations required communities to submit to IDEM "long-term control plans" to reduce their overflows, Easterly says. Communities began submitting the plans in 2002, "We've approved one," he says.

Through effective management, clear direction, and effective use of technology — three goals he has set agencywide — Easterly believes 80 CSO plans can be approved in the next two years.

But he acknowledges that cleaning up Indiana's waterways, from CSOs and other types of pollution, will be expensive.

"We have $10 billion in unmet capital needs," he says. "...We don't have a clear mechanism to pay for that."

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Most of the answer to CSOs and Indiana environmental improvement in general, Easterly argues, lies in a strong economy. No one wants to harm the environment, he says. Citizens and businesses will be less likely to do so if they can afford not to.

He cites mobile sources of ozone pollution — "the cars that you and I drive" — as an example. Pre-1997 cars are major emitters of ozone-causing chemicals, he says. The more people who can afford newer cars, the less pollution there will be.

"It's a question of what can you afford?" he says. "What do you spend your money on? If we can get people's incomes up, that will help with our problem with mobile sources. ... And the same thing happens in business. Profitable businesses build those new facilities that have excellent emission controls on them."

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Evansville's Blair, who has met personally with Easterly and read excerpts from this Alternative interview, finds the commissioner more than naive.

"Three things struck me," Blair wrote. "He will never do anything that is not already required by the feds. He is really afraid of being sued by his friends. And, he does not have much true knowledge of the various environmental laws and rules he is supposed to enforce."

Easterly's views on energy were predictable, Blair says. "He seems to simply take the industry line on issues like energy, especially alternatives, conservation and efficiency."

Mike Mullett from the Indiana Clean Energy Campaign found two aspects of Easterly's comments encouraging: individual companies will not be able to "buy" regulatory exemptions or preferences from the Daniels administration with respect to environmental compliance through political contributions and influence, and the administration expects to be held accountable by the environmental community, the media, and the electorate.

"Unfortunately, the balance of what he had to say seems to me to be quite discouraging," Mullett says. "He is obviously talking only to industry and not to the environmental community. Indeed, he seems to be talking only with the most regressive factions in industry."

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Easterly, whose career as an environmental professional includes stints at the New York State Department of Conservation and Bethlehem Steel, says his time in Northwest Indiana showed him the influence citizen activists can have on government policy.

"Environmental activists, citizens in general, don't care if they offend government," he says. "If you're in business, you care if you offend government."

He expressed hope that his relationship with Indiana's environmental community will be strong. "I want it to be good, but I haven't had time to deal with them," he says, adding that he plans to have an open-a-door policy toward all citizens. "Environmental activists, average citizens, if they call, I'll talk to them. If they invite me to things, and I don't have a conflict, I'll go."

As to the concerns of Blair, Mullett and others who worry that the Daniels administration will be business-friendly to the detriment of the environment, he says they should stay tuned.

"Just keep watching," he says. "And if you see something, let us know first. It's not that we know everything. We might make mistakes. But watch us and see. Good scrutiny is positive. Nobody likes to be criticized, believe me. But it is the right way to do business."

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@Bloomington Alternative.com