Bill limiting environmental rules heads to Indiana Senate

Indiana regulators would be barred from adopting environmental rules tougher than federal standards under a bill that's advancing in the General Assembly that has drawn criticism that it would hamper efforts to protect the state's environment and public health.

The Republican-controlled Indiana House passed the bill Tuesday on a 68-28 vote. The measure, which now heads to the Senate, would bar Indiana's environmental regulators "from adopting a rule or standard that is more stringent than" corresponding federal rules or standards.

State Rep. David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake, said the measure he's offered for several years is aimed at curtailing future actions by state regulators he fears could someday pursue environmental regulations that would be costly to Indiana's industries.

"Political appointees come and go. And if we get somebody who is a very rabid environmentalist, the fact is, they just don't pay any attention to the cost of things," he said Wednesday.

But Beverly Gard, a former Republican state senator who now heads Indiana's Environmental Rules Board that handles rule-making for air, water and solid-waste regulations, said the measure is "bad public policy" and would bind the hands of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Gard said existing state law already details what steps must be taken if rules are proposed that are more stringent than existing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.

If the bill passes the Legislature, she said it could have numerous ramifications, including limiting what rules IDEM could propose to address the large amounts of manure produced by the state's big livestock farms.

"The current statue seems to me to be working, and Indiana hasn't had a history of really going overboard on environmental rule-making as far as rules more stringent than federal standards," Gard said. "I think it's bad public policy. It just wouldn't allow Indiana the flexibility to meet its needs."

State Sen. Ed Charbonneau, a Valparaiso Republican who's sponsoring the bill in the Senate, said he hasn't looked closely at the measure's language but will be assessing it in the weeks ahead and will take Gard's concerns into account.

He chairs the Senate's environmental affairs committee, which Gard had long chaired until her retirement in 2012.

"We'll vet it, give it a hearing. I'm certainly going to listen, and then we'll make a decision on where we go after we have testimony in the committee," Charbonneau said.

Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, who spoke out against the bill before Tuesday's vote, said he believes the measure arose from a push by industries and affiliated lobbying groups that want to limit environmental regulations.

Pierce noted that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, vetoed a similar measure in December 2011 that had been approved by that state's GOP-led Legislature. Snyder had said he worried that measure would undermine Michigan's ability to address environmental concerns.

Pierce said Indiana's bill is likely to pass the Senate even though he believes it "isn't motivated by the idea of maximizing the protection of the public health."

"I don't see why we should fear our own state deciding what's best for our people and our environment," he said.

Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the group strongly opposes Wolkins' bill. He said that if the measure becomes law it would hamstring the state's response to environmental concerns such as coal ash sludge and large factory-style livestock farms.

"Especially in the wake of the so recent, massive chemical spill in West Virginia, which denied 300,000 people drinking water for days, it's remarkably unwise to effectively disable Indiana's executive branch to deal with a wide array of environmental challenges," Kharbanda said.

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