One of Indiana's largest environmental groups said Friday it was concerned that this year's General Assembly may weaken Hoosiers' ability to protect themselves from pollution and other health risks.
Hoosier Environmental Council Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda said the group is trying to find out whether an executive order setting a moratorium on new regulations applies to rules regarding the environment and public health. Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed the order, which is intended to attract new business investment to Indiana, on his first day in office.
"If they are exempt we are less worried; if they are not exempt, we are very worried," Kharbanda said during a telephone conference with reporters. He said the group was in discussions with the administration trying to determine how broad the moratorium was.
The council is also wary of a measure that would require a cost/benefit analysis after the first three years of any new regulation, Kharbanda said. The costs of new regulations tend to be felt early, he said, while benefits such as improved health or safety don't become apparent until later.
"It presents a very skewed view of the benefits and cost of the regulation," he said.
The group also wants to make sure officials consider health benefits when they calculate a regulation's cost. And they want to make sure that any spending reductions don't impede the ability of the state Department of Environmental Management and Department of Natural Resources to do their jobs.
A spokeswoman for Pence did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Another raft of bills could strip local communities and individuals of the power to protect themselves from water pollution and related health risks, particularly those posed by massive industrial-style livestock farming, said Kim Ferraro, the council's director of water and agriculture policy.
The broadest measure is a bill pushed by Pence and authored by Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, that would make those on the losing end of lawsuits pay all of the legal fees. If passed, Ferraro said, such a rule could make residents endure water pollution, odor and other health risks rather than risk going broke fighting people with much deeper pockets.
"For people of modest means who are already hesitant to bring such a lawsuit, they would now have a significant deterrent," Ferraro said.
Other proposals apply specifically to concentrated animal-feeding operations, or CAFOs. One bill authored by Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, would effectively shut neighbors out of setting standards for such factory farms, Ferraro said. Instead, standards would be decided by Purdue University and industry representatives.
"The first provision of this bill would allow industry to write its own standards," Ferraro said. The proposal also would give CAFOs "almost virtual immunity from lawsuits, as long as they were in compliance with the regulations they wrote," she added, and prohibit local health departments and planning commissions from passing any local ordinances regulating livestock operations.
"In other words, completely disarming local communities and people from protecting themselves," Ferraro said.
A joint resolution winding through the Senate and the House would go even further and declare farming a constitutional right. That, Ferraro said, could make all laws regulating agricultural operations unconstitutional.
The Associated Press left messages seeking comment from the legislators involved in the proposals criticized by the council.