(This piece was originally published on January 17, 2017 in the Courier-Journal.)

Jesse Kharbanda, Guest Contributor

There is a deep belief held by certain politicians – including prospective Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt – that environmental decision-making should largely be made by the states, rather than the federal government. That belief is based on a conviction that we’ll solve environmental problems much more effectively if decisions are made closer to home.

While this may sound like a very appealing idea, do the facts support it?  In the Indiana context, major threats to our state’s air and water were not meaningfully addressed until the federal government, with the tireless engagement by public interest organizations like ours, got involved.

– For example, Indiana has more coal ash dumps than any state in the nation. Under very weak environmental safeguards, these dumps were allowed to be built overwhelmingly unlined and often near groundwater supplies, posing dangers to our drinking water sources. There are ten instances of known coal ash-caused groundwater contamination in Indiana alone. Indiana communities and public interest groups pleaded with the state to take action to address this serious threat, but nothing happened to meaningfully reduce the risks from coal ash for more than two decades of effort – until the feds finally got involved.

– Another case in point: Indiana’s rivers have been plagued for decades with bacterial contamination, holding back economic revitalization of neighborhoods near those rivers, depressing property values, and posing health risks. Indiana took no meaningful action to reduce the main source of this bacterial pollution until the feds stepped in to negotiate wastewater infrastructure agreements with Indiana’s cities and towns. Only now are we beginning to see dramatic improvements in the quality of our rivers.

– Providing another unfortunate example demonstrating the great risks of leaving environmental protection entirely up to the states, Indiana has historically been one of the top five emitters of neurotoxic mercury in America.   After years of campaigning by groups like the Hoosier Environmental Council to address this issue, Indiana ended up proposing a policy that the public health and medical community concluded wouldn’t properly protect babies and developing fetuses.  Meaningful action only took place when the federal government stepped in.

The Hoosier Environmental Council, Indiana’s largest environmental public policy organization, is not advocating for an all-powerful EPA nor do we believe that EPA is without flaw. But if environmental policy is largely in state hands, states will fail to adequately act in the unwarranted belief that it will make their states more economically competitive; in those areas where the federal government has largely been silent (e.g., factory farm pollution), this has indeed happened.

By involving the federal government at a meaningful level, our country is able to address air and water pollution that do not observe state or local political boundaries and is able to set an appropriate, science-driven minimum; the latter aspect of federal involvement ensures that Americans, wherever they may live, have the basic rights to clean air and clean water.  Scott Pruitt’s environmental policy approach – as seen in his many aggressive lawsuits against the EPA with respect to mercury, ozone, and other harmful pollutants – would greatly jeopardize that federal-state balance. By gutting federal environmental policies that were years (or even decades) in the making and, effectively, moving power entirely back to the states, a Pruitt-run EPA could well create a new era of inaction with respect to tackling new or recurring threats to our drinking water and our air.

In the backdrop of recent drinking water crises in Charleston, West Virginia, Flint, Michigan, and Toledo, Ohio, we can’t be complacent about the state of environmental protection.  Likewise, we cannot turn a blind eye to the countless brownfields, abandoned oil & gas wells, and factory farm manure pits that can pose threats to the public’s health. The people who suffer the most when we fail to adequately protect the environment are the very people who the incoming Trump administration purports to help: working class, often economically struggling, Americans.

Scott Pruitt’s fiercely negative view of federal environmental policy does not bode well for properly safeguarding the health of these Americans — and Americans in general. Indiana’s elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, Gov. Eric Holcomb, President Pro Tem David Long, and Speaker Brian Bosma, should take heed of this Indiana-informed perspective.

Jesse Kharbanda is the Executive Director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

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