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Merger of pollution boards worries enviros, chamber

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A new state law that merges three longtime rule-making boards into a single panel is stoking concerns among business and environmental groups about what the shift could eventually mean for Indiana's environmental regulations.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the Hoosier Environmental Council — groups often on the opposite sides of legislative issues — both opposed the bill, though for different reasons. Environmentalists fear the shift could lead to weaker air, water and land pollution rules, while the chamber worries a future administration could use the single panel to impose tougher rules costly to industries.

The government streamlining legislation, which Gov. Mitch Daniels signed into law last month after it sailed through both chambers, disbands about 20 state panels and commissions. Some of those spiked groups, such as a water shortage task force, hadn't met in years.

But Indiana's water pollution control board, air pollution control board and solid waste management board — panels with a dozen or more members each — meet several times a year to discuss and vote on rules intended to protect the state's air, water and land from pollution.

Starting next January, however, those three groups will be history and the work of turning state law and federal policy into environmental rules will be overseen by the new Environmental Rules Board, which will include 16 members appointed by the governor's office.

Both environmentalists and the chamber worry that the new board won't have the technical proficiency to make informed decisions on the wide-ranging proposals the three current boards now oversee. They also worry the change will give the Indiana Department of Environmental Management greater sway over those decisions.

In particular, they fear the single board will lack the expertise that exists on the three current boards.

"The issues they get into are very unique to their area and to have a 16-member board that would be able to understand all three disciplines would be very difficult," said Vince Griffin, the vice president of energy and environmental policy at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, notes that the water pollution control board last month passed complex new rules aimed at protecting the quality of the state's waterways — rules that took years to draft.

The water board reviews rules applying to everything from power plants to industrial-scale livestock farms, the air board scrutinizes rules spanning from factory emissions to toxic gases released by dry cleaners, while the solid waste board handles landfill, sewage sludge and other issues.

"How do you recruit a board member who will be sufficiently conversant in such a broad array of environmental law?" Kharbanda said. "The collective effect of these changes raises the question of how this will impact the ultimate quality of environmental policy."

The Sierra Club's Hoosier Chapter also questions whether a single board can make knowledgeable decisions about the wide breadth of issues that will come before it, said Bowden Quinn, the group's conservation program coordinator.

"We think that's just expecting too much," he said.

Kharbanda and Griffin said they plan to urge a summer study committee to recommend that the state search for money to fund a technical adviser for the new board who is outside of IDEM's control to help guide its members through complex issues.

State Rep. David Wolkins, a Republican from Winona Lake who sponsored the bill, will also chair that summer study committee, which makes recommendations to the Legislature and agencies on environmental issues. Wolkins said his committee will take up the funding issue.

"That was one of the major problems with that bill — there was no funding for the technical secretary. Everybody who was against combining the boards said, 'OK we'll accept it reluctantly if you'll have a full-time technical secretary who's not an employee of IDEM.' So we'll be looking at that funding question," he said.

Sen. Beverly Gard, a Greenfield Republican who's been the Senate's leader on environmental issues for years, said she's doubtful funding can be found given the state's tight fiscal situation.

"The fact of the matter is state government doesn't have the money to do that at the level they want it done," she said.

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