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The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is being criticized by environmental groups for closing its separate enforcement office. IDEM deals with violations such as the chemical discharge near Anderson that killed thousands of fish on the White River in 2000.

Stopping polluters

Enforcing environmental regulations and then punishing violators is the raison d’être for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. But for some indefensible reason, IDEM officials have made two decisions recently that call into question their willingness to fulfill their responsibility to protect Hoosiers and the environment.

IDEM is closing its office of environmental protection.

Equally questionable is IDEM’s move to adopt new policies that narrow the definition of environmental harm and investigate only after the environmental damage has been done. State officials charged with protecting people from environmental law violations will instead be asking Hoosiers to prove they were harmed by such things as chemical spills, air pollution that exceeds permitted standards or animal feces flowing freely into state waterways.

Proving environmental harm can be a difficult and lengthy process. It can take decades for a cancer cluster to become evident. Citizens should not have to wait until a whole neighborhood gets sick before state regulators decide to enforce state laws.

Environmental advocates are justifiably concerned that redefining what constitutes a violation will put Hoosiers’ health and well-being in danger by waiting until a violator has already caused harm or endangered the environment before the violator faces any penalties. There are also concerns that the policy gives IDEM managers too much discretion over when a company will face penalties or prosecution for violating environmental laws or regulations.

The environmental management agency is moving Office of Enforcement employees into the air, water and land departments. IDEM officials say the decision to get rid of the independent enforcement agency will improve communication between IDEM employees and improve customer services.

But the obvious question is who the Daniels administration considers to be IDEM’s customers, the people of Indiana seeking protection from polluters or the businesses seeking permits to pollute in Indiana.

The wrongheaded moves are yet more black marks against Gov. Mitch Daniels’ already spotty record for supporting environmental protection. The environmental management department is quickly becoming a joke. But the further dismantlement of government oversight over polluters is no laughing matter.

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