A Brief History of the Hoosier Environmental Council

A small cadre of volunteer leaders used annual conservation strategy meetings convened by legendary conservationist and Congressman Jim Jontz as a springboard to form the Hoosier Environmental Council.  HEC was envisioned as a federation of local and statewide environmental groups, with professional staff who would focus on the council’s role as a watchdog of Indiana’s environmental regulatory agencies, and as a facilitator for communication and coordination among its member groups.  As HEC grew and evolved, it expanded its advocacy and grassroots organizing efforts, and led a series of high profile statewide environmental campaigns.  A door to door canvass, started in the late 1980’s, helped HEC broaden its membership and reach Hoosiers one on one with educational materials and action messages.   Our canvass operated from HEC offices in Indianapolis, South Bend, and later Michigan City.

HEC’s first major statewide campaign expanded a grassroots effort already underway at the time the council was formed.  In response to a national directive to increase commodity production on public lands, the U.S. Forest Service sought to triple timber harvesting on Indiana’s Hoosier National Forest (HNF).  Several HEC leaders, who were veterans of a just-concluded wilderness campaign – that resulted in establishment of the Charles Deam Wilderness area in 1982 – came together to challenge the Forest Service’s proposed management plan that called for widespread clearcutting and oil and gas extraction throughout the forest.   At that time, “global warming” was not yet a part of the national vernacular, and the Forest Service actually used a predicted cooling climate as one justification for its plan to greatly increase logging on the HNF.  After an eight year campaign that eventually gained the support of then Gov. Bayh and eleven of Indiana’s twelve member congressional delegation, the Forest Service reversed direction and adopted in its 1991 forest management plan virtually every component of the Conservationists’ Alternative Forest Plan formulated by HEC and its allies.

HEC followed up its success on the Hoosier National Forest plan with other successful campaigns to protect Indiana’s natural spaces.  We were a leading advocate for the passage of the Indiana Heritage Trust, first proposed by Governor Bayh at HEC’s 1990 Annual Congress.  Adopted by the Indiana General Assembly in 1992, the Heritage Trust is Indiana’s leading public lands acquisition program, protecting over 50,000 acres since 1992.   HEC also provided valuable support to the Indiana Dunes Coalition, which convinced Congress in 1992 to add 1,100 acres of dunes and wetlands to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

HEC helped a local coalition –Patoka River Individuals Defending the Environment — bring statewide recognition to the Patoka River, supporting a campaign to create Indiana’s second national wildlife refuge along the river’s bottomlands, oxbows and wetlands. Established in 1994, the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge will eventually protect over 22,000 acres in Pike and Gibson counties.  HEC continues today to support land acquisition funding for the refuge.

Congress’ passage of the Base Realignment and Closure Act in 1988 resulted in the closure of several military facilities in Indiana, an opportunity which HEC capitalized on to expand our state’s public lands acreage.  In Indianapolis, HEC worked with local conservationists to swiftly build a case for protection of the high quality forest habitats at Fort Benjamin Harrison on the city’s northeast side.   The community readily agreed with this idea, and at Gov. Bayh’s request, in 1996 the U.S. Army transferred these lands to Indiana for the new Ft. Harrison State Park.   In southeast Indiana, it took longer for the Army to eventually conclude that a new national wildlife refuge was the best outcome for the closed Jefferson Proving Ground north of Madison.   HEC’s seven year campaign, in partnership with Save the Valley and the Indiana Wildlife Federation, resulted in establishment, in 2000, of the Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge on 50,000 acres at the former munitions testing facility.  A virtual treasure house of natural diversity, Big Oaks is the largest national wildlife refuge in the lower Midwest.

In the early 1990’s, HEC turned its attention to the proposed Interstate 69 extension from Indianapolis to Evansville due to its expected dramatic environmental impact on the forests and wildlife habitats of southern Indiana.  A series of studies had dismissed the idea for a southwest Indiana interstate, including the Donahue study in 1990.  Yet highway proponents were not deterred, and convinced Gov. Bayh to revive the idea.  Planning resumed for a Bloomington to Evansville interstate, which later evolved into an Indianapolis to Evansville route.  HEC and its allies realized that to effectively counter pro-highway sentiment, it needed to launch a campaign in support of an alternative to the state’s preferred new-terrain alternative.  The campaign for the I-70/U.S. 41 alternative, in partnership with Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads and the Environmental Law and Policy Center, produced an outpouring of public support for this cheaper, less environmentally-damaging alternative.   During the public comment period on the highway’s draft environmental impact statement,  nearly 17,000 letters and postcards, and over 138,000 petition signers supported either the I-70/U.S. 41 alternative or not building a new highway at all.   The I-70/U.S. 41 alternative was also recognized as the environmentally preferable highway route by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. EPA, and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Nevertheless, HEC’s campaign and the overwhelming public sentiment could not dissuade then Gov. Frank O’Bannon from approving the new-terrain I-69 route in 2003.  Even then, the project would have languished had not the Daniels Administration generated new road construction dollars by leasing the Indiana Toll Road. It is ironic that a conservative governor with a strong reputation as a fiscal hawk decided to support a costly and destructive public works project when a cheaper and practical alternative was readily available.

Protecting nature was not the only topic on HEC’s agenda during these years.   The council led a multi-year campaign to strengthen state standards to protect our lakes and rivers.  In the late 1980’s the newly-created Indiana Department of Environmental Management launched an effort to update the state’s water quality standards, required by the federal Clean Water Act.   These critically-important public health safeguards govern what level of a particular pollutant, such as suspended solids or bacteria, is allowable in Indiana’s surface waters.  HEC helped organize a statewide coalition which succeeded in improving the final standards that were adopted in 1989 by the Indiana Water Pollution Control Board.  The effort overcame strong opposition from Indiana’s regulated industries.

HEC pursued a sustained groundwater protection effort during the 1990s and into the new century, which included our campaign for stronger standards governing the disposal of coal combustion wastes.  Commonly known as coal ash, these wastes are the byproduct of burning coal in power plants and industrial boilers.  After a decade of limited success in convincing Indiana authorities to make state coal ash disposal standards at least as protective as those regulating household trash, HEC led an effort to bring national attention to the serious environmental threats from coal ash contamination.   We also helped residents of the Town of Pines, near Michigan City, bring badly needed EPA attention to the severe coal ash contamination in their community.  In response to the request of HEC and other groups, Congressman Nick Rahall of West Virginia sponsored a bill directing the National Research Council to study the environmental risks of coal ash disposal.  The research council concluded in their 2006 study that federal standards were needed.  In 2010, the U.S. EPA finally proposed long overdue national disposal rules.  Today HEC continues to promote adoption of these rules, working with a broad national coalition of environmentalists, scientists, and public health professionals.

One of HEC’s landmark legal victories was a product of our coal ash campaign.  In late 2002, HEC sought legal review of IDEM’s renewal of a coal ash landfill permit for the Clifty Creek power plant near Madison.  The power plant owner, Indiana Kentucky Electric Company, challenged HEC’s standing to bring this case.  In 2005, and for a second time in 2012, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld an Indiana Court of Appeals decision that established the doctrine of associational standing under Indiana law.  Associational standing refers to the right of membership organizations to represent their members in legal actions.

While much of HEC’s energies over our first twenty five were focused on the protection of nature and our waterways, the condition of Indiana’s air did not go unwatched.  In 2004, HEC coordinated a statewide campaign with public health professionals and environmental groups to petition the state for controls on power plant mercury emissions.   HEC’s petition was considered, but ultimately rejected by the Indiana Air Pollution Board; however, the same standard was adopted by the U.S. EPA in December 2011.

Under new leadership in 2007, and in the backdrop of an economic recession and a more conservative political environment, HEC substantially increased its focus on policy priorities that could mean significantly more jobs for Hoosiers while substantially reducing the state’s persistently large environmental footprint.   HEC’s energies became focused on three core initiatives during this period: clean energy, sustainable agriculture, and 21st century transportation.   Invariably, HEC worked in coordination with both traditional allies, while building new relationships with green-minded businesses, public health groups, and philosophically more conservative policymakers.   Successes in this most recent era of HEC’s history include the enactment of new clean energy incentives for both large and small-scale renewable energy, the development of an unprecedented statewide coalition for mass transit, and the adoption of stronger safeguards from factory farm pollution.

While HEC during this most recent era emphasized a pro-active, long-term policy agenda, the organization recognized the critical need to assist communities hurting from pollution and ecological damage.    HEC expanded its efforts to help people harmed by new terrain I-69 highway construction and coal mining.   And to permanently increase its capacity to provide local assistance, HEC merged, for the first time in its history, with another environmental organization, the Northwest Indiana-based LEAF, which had been focused on providing pro bono assistance to victims of pollution.   The combined organization, known as HEC, now has two in-house attorneys who have helped HEC launch new community assistance initiatives related to factory farms and industrial pollution.   HEC’s strengthened legal capacity led to a major victory protecting Lake Michigan from industrial waste, a Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that protects small farmers from factory farm pollution, and the rare granting of class action status to a community long afflicted with toxic air pollution.

As HEC enters its fourth decade, in a scenario of yet greater anti-regulatory sentiment and an economy still struggling, HEC has sought to find the right balance between advancing a long-term, pro-jobs, pro-environmental policy agenda with the urgency to safeguard the health and environment of Hoosiers in the present.