Business interests and environmentalists are squaring off in the Indiana General Assembly. It's unlikely they'll see eye-to-eye anytime soon on this year's ripest green issue: whether to hold Indiana to a higher environmental standard than the rest of the nation.
In one corner, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce is leading a push for legislation to bind the state to environmental rules "no more stringent than" those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Framing the debate around economic development, the Chamber argues that businesses migrate to states with the lowest and least-costly regulatory burden.
"You shouldn't frivolously be adopting standards that are more restrictive, placing Indiana at a disadvantage against other states," said Vince Griffin, Chamber vice president for energy and environmental affairs. "We struggle mightily at times with rules and a process that moves along in a sometimes very heavy-handed way."
In the other corner, environmentalists fear such legislation could pave the way for more pollution and industry encroachment on sheltered land. Hoosier Environmental Council Executive Director Tim Maloney said federal standards are meant to be a baseline. "No more stringent than" legislation would tie Indiana's hands-even in situations where its residents clamored for more protection than EPA provides.
"Indiana should not abdicate its responsibility to take care of the health of its citizens and environment and just accept federal provisions as the best we can do, or all that needs to be done." Maloney said. "There could be many circumstances where the feds don't provide guidance, where people in Indiana, the Legislature and even the regulated community believe we should act. To give away that flexibility and authority is poor policy."
Other legislation dealing with the overlap between business and the environment also is pending, as state legislators search for ways to improve disposal of used tires and mercury-based switches from automobiles. But the "no more stringent than" standard is clearly the most contentious issue.
If adopted, proponents say, it could boost economic development. It also could spur a host of unintended consequences.
For example, Maloney said EPA rules for wetlands protection apply only to wetlands visibly adjacent to other surface waters. To protect isolated wetlands that aren't connected to lakes or streams, Indiana passed its own law-which would be canceled by a "no more stringent than" standard. The windfall for developers would jeopardize birds, fish and other wildlife.
Republican State Rep. Steve Heim, RCulver and vice chairman of the House Environmental Affairs Committee, supports the "no more stringent than" push. Environmental concerns must be weighed against business interests, he said, and the EPA already requires adherence to rigorous environmental rules.
"If you make regulations too stringent, businesses aren't going to come to Indiana. So we need to make sure that regulations we put in place are based on sound science and have a benefit to the public health, and aren't just politically motivated by emotion," Heim said. "It's all about finding the proper balance and making sure that the environmental regulators don't go overboard to the point that companies look at other states."
For example, Heim pointed to a former Indiana Department of Environmental Management policy that required companies to publicly disclose all information required in air emission permits, including technical descriptions of proprietary equipment and processes. Rival companies could hypothetically read IDEM's permit documents in search of a competitive advantage.
"I can't think of a better way to throw up a sign at the state border and say, 'Don't come here,' than those types of policies," Heim said. "It's not IDEM's job to decide whether we have economic development in the state of Indiana."
But critics of a "no more stringent than" standard say EPA requirements aren't what they once were. Detractors of President Bush's administration believe it has gutted national environmental rules as a concession to business.
"The federal government hasn't been taking the lead in environmental regulation," said State Rep. Ryan Dvorak, D-South Bend and ranking minority member on the House Environmental Affairs Committee. "And there's different needs in Indiana than in Hawaii or Florida."
If the "no more stringent than" standard makes it out of the House, it will face serious opposition in the Senate-and not just from Democrats. State Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, chairs the Senate Energy and Environmental Affairs Committee. She said Indiana already has extensive rules requiring IDEM to explicitly show necessity, economic impact and alternatives whenever its standards exceed EPA's. Gard said she won't support new legislation to remove IDEM's remaining teeth.
"I don't think that anybody that understands federal environmental rules and regulations believes that every federal rule and regulation is meant to be the ultimate standard," she said. "There are times when states need to exceed federal standards due to a public health issue. That's what concerns me the most."
"As long as I'm chairwoman of the committee, a provision like that won't pass," Gard added.
Both the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the Hoosier Environmental Council hope the debate won't distract legislators from their two other environmental priorities: creating incentives for better disposal of used tires and the removal of mercury-based switches from autos before they're melted into scrap steel.
According to IDEM, Indiana generates more than 6 million waste tires annually. Many end up in landfills, where they can cause dangerous smoldering fires and release toxic pollutants into the air and water. The Indiana Chamber is lobbying to allow tire burning in industrial cement kilns. The Hoosier Environmental Council would prefer to see them recycled.
Mercury switches are perhaps even more dangerous, but they aren't an ongoing problem like used tires because they aren't allowed in new cars anymore. Still, it will be years before every vehicle containing the switches is off the road. And it's costly to remove the switches before cars are recycled. The General Assembly is grappling with the question of which industry should bear the job: automakers, scrap yards or steel producers.
For both tires and mercury switches, legislators are considering increasing Indiana's fees for auto permits. The resulting revenue would be used to create disposal incentives.
Whatever compromise emerges, Gard said, businesses shouldn't expect a rubber stamp on their environmental agenda just because Republicans dominate state government.
"You have a pro-business House, a probusiness Senate and a pro-business governor," she said. "But it's not my intent to give them the keys to the Statehouse."