Legislation that would prohibit Indiana state agencies from enacting tougher environmental rules and standards than the federal government narrowly won the backing of a state House committee on Wednesday following a discussion that invoked the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
The House Environment Affairs Committee voted 7-6 to send the legislation authored by its chairman, Rep. David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake, to the full House for consideration.
Wolkins, who has sponsored several similar bills over the years, said he's hopeful this measure will pass the House and won't stall in the Senate, where previous versions have never been brought to a vote.
Wolkins said he's been pleased with Indiana's environmental regulations for more than a decade under Republican governors but believes his bill is needed in the event that future state regulators, presumably under Democratic governors, "overreach" and impose tough environmental rules, which he said could stifle economic development.
Hoosier Environmental Council staff attorney Kim Ferraro told the panel that the legislation is unnecessary because existing state law has checks and balances that ensure the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the state's Environmental Rules Board "do not overreach and impose regulations that cause undue, unnecessary" burdens on industry.
Nineteen states currently have similar laws on the books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures' website.
Ferraro said Indiana needs to retain its ability to adopt tougher standards than the federal government uses to protect its environment and the public health, depending on what environmental issues might arise here.
She said that if Michigan had a similar law, it would be restricted in how it could react to the situation in Flint, where a 2014 water supply switch has left residents unable to drink tap water and tests have shown high lead levels in some children's blood.
"In that situation, federal law is inadequate and was inadequate to stop that situation, and the state's laws did not go above and beyond what federal law required," Ferraro said.
She cited, among other issues, that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act states that if a water utility switches water sources, it does not have to perform new water-testing until its "next regularly scheduled testing time, which is once every three years."
Wolkins said he felt Ferraro's argument was misleading. He said his understanding was that Flint's problem was caused by its switch to using the Flint River as the city's drinking water source without adding a chemical to control corrosion.
"This bill would have not had any effect on that at all. Somebody made a bad decision, regulations were not followed, it was human error," he said. "And nothing having to do with this bill has anything to do with what happened in Flint, Michigan."