IDEM fills long-vacant chief-of-staff post, denies agency shakeup

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management said Monday that it has filled a long-vacant chief of staff post, though administration officials deny the move portends a shakeup of the agency.

IDEM Commissioner Tom Easterly has been under fire in northwest Indiana for his alleged role in a 1999 dumping of unrecycled waste while he was in charge as environmental manager for Bethlehem Steel, which went out of business in 2003. The revelation came as part of an investigation last year by the Post-Tribune in Merrillville.

And last month, several prominent environmental groups asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take back authority for enforcing Clean Water Act regulations, alleging numerous flaws in the state’s water pollution control program.

“Tom Easterly is staying at IDEM. There’s just a new chief of staff at the agency,” Jane Jankowski, press secretary for Gov. Mitch Daniels, said of new IDEM chief of staff Kent Abernathy. “We’ve been interested in having Mr. Abernathy join the administration for quite some time and he just became available after completing an obligation with the federal government.”

The Post-Tribune, which first reported the appointment, said Abernathy was a colonel in the U.S. Army and had been stationed in Iraq.

IDEM officials plan to make a formal announcement as early as Tuesday to introduce Abernathy.

“The chief of staff position is one that had been utilized by the agency in the past but has gone unfilled in recent years,” said IDEM spokeswoman Amy Hartsock.

Abernathy will work alongside Easterly “and in coordination with IDEM’s assistant commissioners for the offices of External Affairs, Air Quality, Land Quality, Water Quality, Pollution Prevention and Technical Assistance, and Legal Counsel, to help with the efficient management of the agency’s regulatory programs and outreach initiatives,” Harstock said.

Easterly was appointed by Daniels in 2005.

The Post-Tribune said his name came up last year in discussions between IDEM and ArcelorMittal after the Burns Harbor steel company applied for a permit to dispose of waste dumped by Bethlehem when it occupied the property. ArcelorMittal officials referred to the waste as “Easterly’s pile.”

Meanwhile, IDEM finds itself on the defensive regarding enforcement of Clean Water Act rules in a petition filed with EPA by Hoosier Environmental Council, the Sierra Club Hoosier Chapter and the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center.

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