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January 24, 2014

JESSE KHARBANDA: Bill undermines ability to solve state's environmental problems

Let's safeguard health above rigid ideology.

In our less attentive moments, we may look upon Indiana’s air and water quality with a bit of indifference: “The sky looks clear. My tap water seems okay. All seems fine.” But then we’re shaken by news that 300,000 West Virginians, due to a major chemical leak, can’t drink from their water supply for days. Or, we’re reminded of the 1 billion gallon coal ash contamination disaster in 2008 just a few hours south of Indiana’s border. Or Michigan’s 2010 tar sands disaster, the largest in-land oil spill in U.S. history, approaching $1 billion to clean up.

The fact that nearly a decade and a half into the 21st century, our country still finds itself vulnerable to catastrophic environmental situations ought to be sobering. And it ought to be a strong message to the 2014 Indiana General Assembly, and its leaders, Speaker Brian Bosma and President Pro Temp David Long, as well as Gov. Mike Pence, that Indiana should continually ensure that Indiana has the tools that it needs to head off environmental tragedies in our state and improve our public health.

Astonishingly, some legislators are advancing a bill that would move Indiana in reverse. HB 1143, benignly called “no more stringent than,” would weaken Indiana’s ability to head off environmental tragedies like those mentioned above by stripping away the power of Indiana’s executive branch, except potentially in rare circumstances, to develop policies that go beyond what the federal government enacts.

For the proponents of this bill — and many reading this column — the idea of stopping Indiana’s executive branch from going beyond what the federal government requires with respect to environmental protection may sound quite appealing. “The feds are overly aggressive,” they reason, “so why should we want Indiana’s executive branch to pile on even more environmental regulation?” This argument, in the context of HB 1143, is very problematic. First, while the feds have, in certain instances, acted quite forcefully to protect the public’s health, in other cases, the fed’s commitment to safeguard our health has been astonishingly inadequate. Just ask the rural mom worried about the health effects from exposure to animal feces downwind from a factory farm or the family who gets their drinking water from a source contaminated by a coal ash lagoon; in both of these instances, the federal policy response has been very weak. But because the feds have acted — however insufficiently — Indiana’s executive branch would be legally barred, based on the current bill, from taking stronger, but needed action. Second, under federal environmental laws, state governments are typically given the lead to develop plans for meeting federal air and water quality and cleanup goals. However, HB 1143 could paralyze the state’s environmental professionals in implementing those plans, for fear that they would be legally challenged for being more stringent than federal law even when exercising their lawful discretion in implementing such laws.

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