Northwest Indiana, home of steel mills, BP and Albanese Candy factory, is also the home of Indiana’s largest greenhouse gas inventory and sustainability effort.
“The Northwest Indiana regional effort has grouped together 13 local governments across three counties to simultaneously measure their greenhouse gas emissions and develop a regional account of all emissions within the three counties,” said Steve Chybowski, the resilience cohort coordinator with Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute
The cohort hopes to focus on community-oriented strategies to limit the amount of greenhouse gasses produced in the region while encouraging waste reduction and energy efficiency. The cohort’s report was finalized in early May and will be released on the NWI Region Resilience website later.
According to Connie Wachala, a Highland resident and volunteer who helped inspire the effort, the project has many benefits.
“Measuring emissions gives a community a baseline measurement by which they can plan how to lower them; they can better understand where emissions can be reduced, thereby saving money,” Wachala said. “The money saved by lowering emissions can be reinvested in other projects that benefit the community.”
The Northwest Indiana Region Resilience started when Wachala and Kathy Sipple, a contractor for Earth Charter Indiana and the creator of the podcast 219 GreenConnect, went to the Climate Leadership Summit in Goshen, Indiana, and heard Andrea Webster, an IU ERI professional, speak. The summit, organized by ECI, inspired them to start being active in their own communities. (Full disclosure: Youth Environmental Press Team is an ECI program.)
Organizing a climate initiative takes a lot of communication and teamwork, which is where Sipple came in. Sipple hosted weekly Zoom meetings for interested citizens. The citizens then reached out to their local governments and explained to them what the cohort was trying to do.
“Talking with governments, you start with one person, then you go to the next, then you get passed off to another that you have to talk to… It’s a whole process that takes a long time,” Sipple said.
The inventory was originally projected to take 10 weeks, but due to the complexity of gathering the information, it took longer. With six college interns covering 13 cities and three counties, the work was intensive. Two municipalities, Hammond and Portage, joined even after the original 10 weeks had come to a close.
In all, 13 municipalities in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties joined the initiative. Gary and Michigan City previously went through the process with ERI, setting an example for other cities in the region.
“Previously, the number of people in our regional cohort was the number in our entire state,” Sipple said. “It’s massive now. We had to get creative with how to do the inventory because it was so big. Most interns do only one inventory, while ours did two or three each.”
Northern Indiana Regional Planning Commission played a crucial part in helping the separate towns work together. According to its website, NIRPC is “a regional council of local governments serving the citizens of Lake, Porter, and LaPorte counties in Northwest Indiana. NIRPC provides a forum that enables the citizens of Northwest Indiana to address regional issues relating to transportation, the environment, and economic development.”
Wachala, the Highland activist, said, “We’re all so close together as communities, it’s very different from other parts of the state where smaller towns are more spread out. We’re many different cities and towns close together, so we wanted to apply [to IU’s program] regionally, and we knew we’d have to have an agency (like NIRPC) coordinate this.”
Coordinating among the different age groups also is a priority.
“It’s important to take the intergenerational approach instead of just a bunch of young people or a bunch of old people because then you can say, ‘Your whole citizenry wants this: How can you say no?’” Sipple said.
Doing such an extensive inventory, however, came with some difficulties.
Julianne Roser, an environmental and ecological engineering student at Purdue and one of the key interns for the study, explained the challenges the study faced.
“We were trying to figure out how to gather data from 14 [at the time] different communities. We had to request data from many people, so the short time frame was difficult. Organizing and getting what we needed in the 10 weeks was our biggest challenge. The six of us really came together and got the data to make the inventory work out,” Roser explained.
To get results, the interns looked at records from the different communities and focused on different sectors — residential energy, industrial energy, commercial energy, transportation and mobile sources, solid waste, wastewater treatment, agriculture, forestry and land use, and process and fugitive emissions. From these sectors the interns extrapolated information on CO2, methane and nitrous oxide.
From the results, municipalities will focus on working together to reduce pollution. Through the ERI program, communities will be guided through this part of the process.
“We’re hoping this won’t be a stand-alone project but that it will be something that we can update almost like how a census is updated,” Roser said.
IU’s Chybowski said, “There are other regional climate action efforts happening throughout the country, such as in Southeast Florida, the metro D.C. region, Denver and Chicago, but this is a first for Indiana, and it is still a relatively new and novel approach to climate action nationally. We are excited to see this approach developed in Indiana and to see local governments collaborating on climate action.”
Olivia Mapes is a senior at Lake Central High School. An earlier version of this story appeared in Lake Central Student News.