(This piece was originally published on February 11, 2016 in The Indianapolis Star.)
“The legislature’s annual attack on Indiana’s environment is underway. This year, the most troublesome bill would tie the hands of environmental rulemakers. Bottom line: More power for polluters.”
“You don’t have to be an environmentalist to shake your head in frustration at the state legislative majority’s annual attempt to make clear that it does not, in any significant way, value clean air and clean water.
And you don’t have to be a member of the Sierra Club or Greenpeace to wonder why Statehouse Republicans so often and so blatantly side with polluters over rank-and-file Hoosiers )or why Statehouse Democrats have not done more to fight back in recent years).
You don’t have to be an environmentalist. You just have to care about your state.
So here’s hoping all of those who simply care about Indiana’s quality of life can unite and send a loud message to the legislature about a bill that is as bad as it is perplexing, and as cynical as it is potentially harmful. Because while this bill is yet another gift to the polluters — the state’s builders and factory farms, its manufacturers and utilities — it’s another slap at Hoosiers who don’t fill the Statehouse halls with lobbyists but do care about the health of their children.
And their state.
This year’s cause for concern is House Bill 1082, an attack on Indiana’s environment that the state medical association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have opposed, along with the state’s small and outgunned, but always determined, band of environmental organizations.
“This is public policy that we consider to be dangerous in that it weakens the ability of public officials to protect quality of life,” Hoosier Environmental Council executive director Jesse Kharbanda said. And that sums it up pretty well: Another legislative session, and another bill that “weakens the ability of public officials to protect quality of life.”
It’s an annual tradition.
The bill might sound like no big deal, as it simply mandates that Indiana cannot implement environmental rules “more stringent” than federal rules. In a state that rarely comes down hard on polluters, and at a time of so much over-the-top rhetoric from the governor and state lawmakers about federal environmental policies, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Indiana’s rules would be tougher than those issued by the feds.
But here’s the problem: The law would further tie the hands of state environmental policymakers. It would further weaken the ability of the Indiana Environmental Rules Board — whose membership is stocked with industry interests, by the way — to craft Indiana-specific solutions to deal with Indiana-specific problems. It somehow ignores the fact that a mountain of protections for polluters already is enshrined in state law, and it would muddle routine efforts to turn broad federal rules into more specific state guidelines.
In short, HEC attorney Kim Ferraro said, “It really will prevent Indiana from addressing its own unique pollution problems.” Moreover, she noted, “This doesn’t address any concerns about EPA overreach. It only ties our hands here in Indiana. The reverse of what supporters want to happen will happen.” That is, state inaction will mean “the EPA can come in and take over.”
So let’s be clear: First, the bill is unnecessary. Second, it would hurt Indiana’s ability to address its own issues. Third, it could backfire. Fourth, it could hurt efforts to address issues that fall between the cracks of federal policy. And, finally, it once again reminds us that too many state lawmakers don’t understand that quality of life concerns deserve a seat at the adult table along with coal companies, the Indiana Manufacturers Association, the logging industry and other special interests that push bills like this one.
In a state that ranks low in so many environmental areas, finding a good argument for the bill is almost impossible. Oh, wait, there is this: According to a fiscal note attached to the bill, it might save a few bucks, because the Environmental Rules Board, stripped of power, wouldn’t have to meet as often. Yes, that’s what Indiana needs: even less attention being paid to environmental issues.
There’s perhaps no better way to witness the misplaced priorities at the Statehouse than by watching a video of the House Environmental Committee’s recent hearing on the bill. As Chairman David Wolkins, a Republican from Kosciusko County, downplayed the concerns of environmental groups he noted that “I and many in the regulated community do not view (federal rules) as a minimum.”
I had to watch that one a second time to make sure I’d heard it correctly. I had. So again, here’s what Chairman Wolkins said: “I and many in the regulated community.” As if they are one. As if they are on the same team.
Who’s looking out for the rest of us? Hard to say. The bill cruised through the House on a largely party line vote, and Senate Environmental Committee Chairman Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, recently signed on as the Senate sponsor. Environmental groups are pinning their hopes on him, though they point out that lobbyists working for the “regulated community” are making a particularly strong push for the legislation this year.
The HEC’s Kharbanda noted the real-world implications of this proposal. If it had been state law five years ago, he said, Indiana would have been unable to address a permitting loophole in federal law regarding huge factory farms filled with hogs and chickens. And you only have to look north to Flint, Mich., to see why a state shouldn’t haphazardly make it harder to quickly address environmental issues specific to its communities.
This bill would give polluters yet more backroom muscle and additional legal avenues with which to stop environmental policies they dislike, tipping the balance of power even further in their direction. That’s why Ferraro, the environmental attorney, urged lawmakers at the recent House committee hearing to think about the potential damage HB 1082 could do to Indiana’s cities, towns and citizens.
“Please, let’s not go backward,” she said.
Hoosiers deserve that much. And they certainly deserve better than this bill.”