(This piece was originally published on January 16, 2017 in the Kokomo Perspective.)

Non-Profit Organization Looking to Curb IDEM and DNR Cuts

An Indiana nonprofit organization hopes to reverse a nearly decade-long trend.

According to Jesse Kharbanda, the executive Director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, time has not been kind to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Since 2007, he claims the organizations have incurred vast budget cuts that limit the functions of the environmental groups. Not only that, but he also claims the limitations of the organizations directly impact quality of life in Indiana, and he hopes change may be around the corner.

Beginning in 2007, Kharbanda said budget cuts began for IDEM and the DNR. These declines were far from minor. According to numbers provided by the HEC, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, between 2007 and 2015 IDEM’s funding declined 25 percent while the DNR’s decreased by six percent in that same period.

“It’s a very significant decline as you can imagine, and it leads to an overall decline in 16 percent of the budget between 2007 and 2015 even though, obviously, our population has grown and our economy has grown since 2007,” said Kharbanda. “It’s going in the backwards direction when it should be going forward.”

To Kharbanda and the HEC, this trend needs to be reversed for several reasons. A continued decline in revenue has resulted in a loss of qualified staff and, most notably, the organization draws a link between IDEM and quality of life initiatives in Indiana. IDEM’s cleanup programs, for example, have been affected by the budget cuts.

“When it comes to quality of life enhancement, one of the most important things IDEM does is … it manages several cleanup programs,” said Kharbanda. “Those cleanup programs require quality staff, quality equipment. And when you have budget cuts you’re inevitably going to lose staff, and you’re inevitably going to pare down the ability for the agency to buy proper monitoring equipment. In our view that actually hurts quality of life as well as economic development because it means you slow down the ability to get rid of brown fields in communities and convert those to viable properties that eventually bring investment and add properties to the property tax role to a community.”

This point hits close to home. After all, work is almost completed on a superfund site in Kokomo that is being converted into a solar farm. And, according to IDEM’s database, the City of Firsts has 40 properties that are enrolled in a cleanup program.

At this point, Kharbanda said the proposed budget for IDEM this year remains “status quo.” However, he’s hopeful that with the incoming administration changes may be coming.

“We’re not taking that as gospel because those are budgets that the outgoing administration formulated,” said Kharbanda. “We’re in dialogue with the transition team for Governor Elect Holcomb with the aim of enhancing and improving funding. If we can’t restore it, at least reversing the trend. We are going to be pushing hard for a larger budget.”

Compared to the Pence administration, Kharbanda maintains that Holcomb’s team has been more receptive to the environmental agency’s needs. As of now, meetings have been held with the Indiana Conservation Alliance, and 50 recommendations have been submitted to the administration by the HEC.

“We got a prompt acknowledgment that they would take those recommendations seriously, and so that’s a good sign. That did not happen when Pence came to office,” said Kharbanda.

Aside from quality of life initiatives, Kharbanda maintains that health-related issues could arise should IDEM’s funding continue to dwindle.

One of IDEM’s functions is to maintain monitoring devices that gauge pollutants in waterways. This initiative is of particular importance when considering Indiana has the fifth most expensive livestock sector in the country, which is a common source of groundwater pollution.

Put simply, Kharbanda said Indiana needs to bolster its spending in regards to pollution monitoring to avoid environmental emergencies. Namely, more spending may be necessary to bolster inspection rates, as farming operations are only inspected once every five years because only eight inspectors are available statewide.

Furthering Kharbanda’s claim are recent events that have occurred in other states. And to avoid such instances, the HEC executive directors said Indiana need to support funding of its environmental agencies.

“I think when you cut budgets you are stepping up the risks facing Hoosiers, and that increases the probability of a crisis happening,” said Kharbanda. “For us, what we look to as the whole public health case for why their needs to be more funding, we look to places like Charleston, W.V., where the entire city was without drinking water for days because of a leak in one single above ground storage tank. We think of places like Toledo, which was without drinking water for a few days because of the blue green algae bloom. Those are things that were well within the purview of agencies like IDEM to prevent.”

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