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National

Newest National Park Abuts Problem-Causing Industrial Area

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Six months after Indiana Dunes became the country's newest national park, a nearby chemical spill killed thousands of fish and closed one of the park's beaches. That's a risk faced every day by a park located next to some large industrial plants. As Indiana Public Broadcasting's Rebecca Thiele reports, environmentalists want stronger protections and better enforcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRICKETS CHIRPING)

REBECCA THIELE, BYLINE: It's hard to find a national park quite like Indiana Dunes. It's 15,000 acres of big sand dunes, wetlands and sparkling Lake Michigan beaches, all within an hour's drive of Chicago. Dan Plath is the chief of resource management here and says this is one of the few places you can find a desert plant, like prickly pear cactus, right next to a cold-weather plant, like arctic bearberry.

DAN PLATH: That's one of the reasons I get so excited about working for the park. You see things like this that are really not found anywhere else in the world.

THIELE: Another thing making Indiana Dunes unique is its neighbors, big industrial companies like U.S. Steel and oil refiner BP. Environmentalists say protecting the park from industrial spills is a challenge. Natalie Johnson leads the group Save the Dunes and says the chemical spill in August is still on everyone's mind.

NATALIE JOHNSON: The nation is watching. And how we respond to these incidents really is telling of how many people are going to want to come to the National Park.

THIELE: Still, Johnson says industry in Northwest Indiana provides much-needed jobs and tax revenue to the state. Kay Nelson is with the Northwest Indiana Forum, a regional economic development group. She says industrial companies next to the Great Lakes aren't allowed to release as much pollution as others around the country.

KAY NELSON: The Great Lakes' water quality standards are already pretty stringent.

THIELE: But there are concerns that some of these companies aren't strictly following all the regulations or being properly sanctioned when they aren't. Environmental advocates say the number of inspections and civil lawsuits by the EPA has gone down dramatically in the past decade. Eric Schaeffer worked for the EPA for 12 years and now leads the group the Environmental Integrity Project. Schaeffer says, with a shrinking budget, the EPA is increasingly turning over enforcement to states. He says federal regulators are making what he thinks is a faulty assumption...

ERIC SCHAEFFER: That EPA can kind of leave the field because the states are going to close the gap. And our analysis of states is that you have states that do a great job in some areas and a not very good job in others, and they are always short of resources, as well.

THIELE: Indiana's Department of Environmental Management alone now has more than a hundred fewer employees than it had just seven years ago. Environmentalists here are concerned that that could leave the country's newest national park less protected from industry right next door. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Thiele. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.