Gov.-elect Eric Holcomb has said all the right things about balancing Indiana’s agricultural and industrial needs and protecting air and water. But Holcomb doesn’t have a long track record in elected office, and his approach to environmental policy is likely a work in progress.
Leaders of the Hoosier Environmental Council say they have reached out to the new administration with an agenda that includes increased funding for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, instituting state regulations for factory farm manure pits and coal ash waste pits, stopping aggressive logging in Indiana’s state forests, promoting clean energy and developing a statewide energy-climate plan that includes reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
If the 2017 legislative session proceeds as usual, environmental advocates will find themselves scrambling to fight proposals that would undercut existing environmental standards. There could be a renewed push to prevent state regulators from enforcing anti-pollution regulations stronger than those at the national level. Such "no more stringent" legislation might be more detrimental to efforts to protect Indiana’s air and water if, as many fear, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under soon-to-be-President Donald Trump moves to weaken rules and enforcement nationwide.
But whatever happens in Washington, Jesse Kharbanda, the HEC’s executive director, says his organization is optimistic about progress at the state level. He thinks the key is stressing the link between environmental quality and economic development.
Clean air and water, respect for wildlife and community encouragement of outdoor activities through bike and hiking trails make the job of attracting and retaining businesses and employees easier. It’s part of the "quality of life" concept Fort Wayne’s economic development leaders have long grasped.
"No community in this day and age can survive and thrive with the reputation of being dirty or polluted or contaminated," Kharbanda said in an interview last week. "It’s really within the interests of (a) county to make sure that pollution sources are properly contained."
But individual communities need backing from a strong IDEM to minimize such problems as air and water pollution from controlled animal feeding operations, giant cattle-, hog- and poultry-raising centers that often include massive manure pits.
With higher funding and more staff, the environmental council believes IDEM could do a better job of monitoring such operations and supervising commercial and industrial pollution sites that have entered the state’s voluntary remediation program.
"By watchdogging those companies more effectively, you will be able to take brownfields off the contaminated list."
IDEM’s funding "is a perpetual concern for us," said Kharbanda, contending the regulatory agency’s funding has fallen dramatically during the last decade.
Kharbanda and other environmental advocates are hoping Holcomb will take a pragmatic approach to IDEM’s funding and other pollution-regulation issues.
"Gov.-elect Holcomb has an opportunity to show real leadership on the environment by moving away from the notion that the environment and the economy are at odds," Kharbanda said.
Even a rollback of environmental progress in Washington wouldn’t have to mean Indiana has to slow its efforts for a cleaner, more livable state.