- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 19, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - A coalition of 16 environmental, health and citizens groups urged Indiana lawmakers on Wednesday to reject legislation that would prevent state regulators from adopting environmental rules tougher than federal standards, warning it would “handcuff” the state’s ability to protect the public health and environment.

A wide range of groups oppose the bill, which passed the Indiana House last month and is scheduled to be heard Monday by the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee.

They include the Hoosier Environmental Council, the Indiana Wildlife Federation, the American Lung Association of Indiana, the Indiana State Medical Association and the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Indiana.

Hoosier Environmental Council Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda said during a news conference outlining the groups’ opposition to the bill that it would hamper the state’s response to environmental concerns such as coal ash sludge lagoons from Indiana’s coal-fired power plants and large factory-style livestock farms.

If the bill passes the Senate and is signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence, Kharbanda said it “would handcuff” the Indiana Department of Environmental Management by preventing it from enacting environmental and public health safeguards more protective than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.

He said the legislation is based on the incorrect assumption that the EPA has “uniformly overreached” on environmental policy. Kharbanda said the reality is federal environmental policy has big gaps and some federal regulations are weaker than what Indiana might need to protect public health and the state’s air, water and land.

“This bill weakens the state’s rights. It unilaterally gives up the ability of Indiana’s executive branch to act on areas of environmental law where the EPA has acted inadequately,” he said.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. David Wolkins of Winona Lake, has said his measure is aimed at curtailing future actions by state regulators he fears could someday pursue environmental regulations costly to Indiana’s industries.

But Beverly Gard, a former Republican state senator who’s an environmental expert, recently called the measure “bad public policy” that would bind the hands of IDEM staffers.

Gard had long chaired the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee until her retirement in 2012 and she had refused to hear similar legislation Wolkins had previously authored.

She now heads Indiana’s Environmental Rules Board, the rule-making panel for state air, water and solid waste regulations Wolkins’ bill targets.

State Sen. Ed Charbonneau, a Valparaiso Republican who’s sponsoring the bill in the Senate and now chairs the Senate’s Environmental Affairs Committee, said the panel will take testimony Monday on the bill. He said Wednesday in a statement the measure “is not a new issue, but I feel the time has come to at least have a discussion about a potentially significant policy shift in our state.”

Rosemary Spalding, a former IDEM general counsel who’s now board chair of Earth Charter-Indiana - one of the groups opposing the legislation - said the bill would eliminate Indiana’s flexibility to address public and environmental health concerns “in a way that’s appropriate for Indiana.”

She said it’s unclear if the measure would apply only to federal regulations and standards, or if it would extend to federal guidance on environmental rules. Spalding predicted it could lead to legal battles over state environmental policy.

“Despite its simple and straightforward language and intent, if this bill is enacted it will result in uncertainty, disagreement and no doubt litigation,” she said. “There will be disagreements believe me and eventually courts will be called upon to decide all these various issues.”

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