Lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to a disputed bill seeking to remove protections from Indiana’s already diminished wetlands amid mounting criticism that the legislation could cause damage to the state’s waterways, wildlife and vegetation.
The bill’s advance came one day after the death of a contested renewable energy bill meant to set standards for wind and solar projects.
The wetlands measure, which has sparked bipartisan opposition within the Republican-dominated Legislature, would eliminate a 2003 law that requires the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to issue permits in a state-regulated wetland and end enforcement proceedings against landowners allegedly violating current law.
The Indiana Senate voted 31-19 Wednesday to send the bill to Gov. Eric Holcomb, who earlier in the Legislative session said it was cause for “concern.”
The Republican governor allowed staff at the departments of natural resources and environmental management to oppose the bill in hearings in January. State regulatory officials argued that because wetlands provide water purification, habitat for wildlife and reduced flood risks, it’s critical they’re protected.
The pushback prompted lawmakers in the House to scale back the intended repeal last week, although the amended bill would still reduce wetland permitting regulations for croplands and ephemeral, or temporary, streams.
The bill was additionally amended to be retroactive as of Jan. 1, meaning building projects in some wetland areas would no longer need permits. Fees currently required to be paid to state—as compensation for any harm those projects might cause to wetlands—would also be eliminated.
While Democratic lawmakers supported another provision added to the measure that would establish a task force to study wetland classifications, they the Legislature should instead wait for the task force’s recommendations before taking further legislative action.
“This bill is still a mess. In my opinion, this is one of the most hurtful bills of the entire session,” said Democratic Sen. Karen Tallian of Ogden Dunes, adding that the final version of the bill—while less extreme than the original legislation moved by the Senate—still rolls back what opponents say are critical protections for wetlands.
The proposal comes as President Joe Biden’s administration begins review of the previous administration’s rules like the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which narrowed the definition of waterways that fall under federal protection.
Republican bill author Sen. Chris Garten and other sponsors maintain that vague language in the current state law, over-enforcement by state regulators and high mitigation fees that drive up housing costs prompted the drafting. They contend removal of state protections would help developers and grow the housing market.
“We did not want to affect the wetlands that had significant hydrologic function,” Garten said Wednesday, noting that certain classifications of wetlands remain regulated. “But, unfortunately, (certain wetlands) are defined so ambiguously that we literally right now have an agency that’s running around classifying farm ground and broken drain tiles as wetland. That’s what we’re trying to address.”
Without enough votes for passage, senators killed a separate bill Tuesday that would have shifted some local control over wind and solar farm siting regulations to the state.
The original version of House Bill 1381 established parameters for how close wind and solar projects can be to other properties, overriding municipal ordinances that restrict or prohibit wind power. The plan prompted outcry from local officials over the need for more community authority.
The bill was later amended to allow county and local governments to maintain more restrictive ordinances and provide the option for local units to approve wind projects.
Following an emergency caucus meeting Tuesday, however, the less comprehensive version of the bill died after Republican Sen. Mark Messmer, of Jasper, withdrew it from a vote.
During his remarks on the Senate floor, Messmer acknowledged that the main opposition came from proponents for local control and likened his attempts to broker the bill to bargaining with “schizophrenic” hostage negotiators.
Language from the bill could still re-emerge in the final days of Legislative session, which is set to adjourn as early as April 21.