Democrats, activists call on governor to veto wetlands bill

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Calls are mounting for Gov. Eric Holcomb to veto a bill that would remove some protections from Indiana’s already diminished wetlands amid mounting criticism that it could damage waterways, wildlife and vegetation.

The wetlands measure passed out of the Legislature on April 14 and has sparked bipartisan opposition within the Republican-dominated Legislature. If enacted, it would eliminate a 2003 law that requires the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to issue permits for construction and development in state-regulated wetlands and end enforcement proceedings against landowners accused of violating current law.

All Democratic members of the General Assembly, as well as a member of the Senate Republican Caucus, urged the Republican governor to veto the bill in a letter sent last week.

Enacting the bill “will have long-term consequences,” they said, urging a “more in-depth study than what was accomplished in limited committee times during a legislative session in a pandemic.”

Bill author Sen. Chris Garten and other sponsors maintain the current law is too vague, and say removal of state protections would help developers and grow the housing market.

Hoosier Environmental Council executive director Jesse Kharbanda said the not-for-profit group joined dozens of others calling on Holcomb to turn down the bill, warning that it eliminates critical wetlands protections, even though it is less extreme than the original Senate version that would have completely done away with all protections.

Kevin Brinegar, president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, conceded that the current regulations are confusing and could be improved, but said this bill isn’t the answer. Brinegar said he asked Holcomb to veto “this potentially very detrimental legislation.”

“The reduction in wetland regulations will likely have negative impacts on water quality, flood control and quality of place factors that are connected to attracting the best and brightest workers and businesses to Indiana,” Brinegar said. “But given the importance of wetlands, the ideal initial remedy should have been a thorough study with input by the regulated community–not the drastic changes proposed in this bill.”

The governor’s office said Friday that Holcomb would review the bill, but hasn’t commented yet on what action he plans to take on the measure.

The governor said earlier in the Legislative session that the wetlands repeal was a cause for “concern,” and allowed staff at the natural resources and environmental management departments to oppose the bill in hearings in January. State regulatory officials argued that the wetlands must be protected because they purify water, provide habitat for wildlife and reduce flood risks.

The proposal comes as President Joe Biden’s administration reviews the previous administration’s rules such as the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which narrowed the definition of waterways that fall under federal protection.

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