The Journal Gazette
Slashing funding for smog enforcement would be a short-term solution that creates longer-term problems.
January 1, 2011
IDEM budget cuts tempting but short-sighted
By Jesse Kharbanda

Indiana’s 2011 legislature – with two dozen newcomers among them – will be understandably focused on creating the right conditions for jobs for Hoosiers, given the backdrop of both a tough economy and the budgetary climate.

Some budget hawks may instinctively be looking to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s budget for some serious cutting in the view that IDEM is somehow an impediment to economic growth.

But those hawks – and the public at large – would benefit from knowing that well-conceived environmental initiatives are actually key tools for positioning Indiana to attract new jobs and businesses.

Funding environmental programs helps minimize the risk of soil and groundwater contamination, keeping a community on solid ground to draw in future investment. For example, Indiana had more than 9,000 leaks from underground storage tanks in 2010.

Properly done, timely inspections by IDEM can help spare a community from potentially drinking unhealthy water and help that community remain an attractive destination for business and tourism.

Indiana has historically been an industrial powerhouse, but today a factor standing in the way of industrial growth is the legacy of contaminated sites. Many of these properties stand idle for years waiting for approved cleanups.

Privately financed remediation work – done with technical assistance from IDEM and the Indiana Finance Authority – is essential if communities such as Anderson and Kokomo are to make abandoned sites marketable once again, and important to strengthen their communities’ claims to being healthy places to raise a family.

Rather than cutting resources for cleanup work, Indiana should enhance its efforts, allowing us to take advantage of substantial untapped federal matching funds.

IDEM initiatives can help counties avoid the major economic penalties that come from being in violation of federal air quality standards.

When IDEM uses its technical expertise to help businesses and local government adopt the latest pollution-cutting practices, the agency helps communities avoid a “non-attainment” designation that would otherwise lead to deferred investments.

IDEM’s enforcement staff holds polluters accountable and levels the playing field for all companies so Indiana communities don’t see their quality of life – and investment prospects – sink due to the misconduct of a few bad actors. IDEM has been its own worst enemy on this front in recent years, reducing the size and authority of this critical environmental protection function. This vital function should not be further gutted by a reduced IDEM enforcement budget. Further weakening of IDEM’s enforcement powers will make communities more vulnerable to serious and costly damage to property and people’s livelihoods, and may compel federal involvement in what could be a protracted resolution of an environmental enforcement problem.

Finally, IDEM grants, when strategically used, can make the difference between a business coming to Indiana or going elsewhere.

This is true for initiatives like the Recycling Market Development Fund, which has been tapped to draw in well-paying manufacturing jobs to Indiana.

The 2011 budget session will not be easy. Every agency will likely need to bear some sacrifice.

And while we have serious concerns about some of IDEM’s policies, IDEM’s budget – about half a percent of total state spending – should not be the sacrificial lamb. In fact, let’s be open to finding new sources of revenue, such as long-delayed changes in permit fees.

At stake is not just Indiana’s environmental quality and Hoosier health, but the very thing that legislators will be most focused on: the state’s prospects for economic growth.

Jesse Kharbanda is the executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.

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