Sierran Masthead

Legislative Session May Result in Environmental Damage and Disappointment

By Bowden Quinn, Hoosier Chapter Lobbyist

Wetlands and Water Quality in Danger

The rumbling you hear in the background is the sound of the bulldozers warming up to start eradicating small Indiana wetlands this spring.

Ignoring a gubernatorial veto, a strong public outcry, and newspaper editorials from around the state, the Indiana legislature has stripped most protections from so-called "isolated wetlands"-those wetlands not considered to be waters of the United States. The federal government continues to assert authority over wetlands that connect to "navigable waters," that is, rivers, streams and lakes.

In late January, the legislature overrode former Gov. Frank O'Bannon's veto of House Enrolled Act 1798, the law that contains the wetlands language, by overwhelming margins-two-to-one in the House of Representatives and almost three-to-one in the Senate. The act also contains language allowing municipalities and counties to raise taxes to meet new stormwater control requirements and calling for a shutdown in motor vehicle emissions testing in Clark and Floyd counties by 2007.

Lawmakers then attempted to fix flaws in the wetlands law with a new bill, but it appears that most small wetlands, as well as many larger wetlands, will remain unprotected. The new law purports to classify wetlands into three categories based on their supposed quality, but the unscientific classification scheme will result in few if any wetlands included in the most protective category. The middle category leaves wetlands under one-quarter acre unprotected, while half-acre wetlands in the lowest category are vulnerable.

Some legislators concede that they may have to adjust the law once its impact is felt, so people who see wetlands that they value disappearing to make way for rampant development should express their concerns to their state representatives and senators.

Another bill passed by the Senate and working its way through the House would prohibit the Indiana Department of Health from applying nitrate and nitrite drinking-water standards to groundwater affected by residential septic systems. Homebuilders complain that the treatment technology to meet the standards is too expensive. The nitrate/nitrite standards are specifically set to protect newborn infants from "blue baby syndrome," a rare but potentially fatal disease that deprives infected babies of oxygen. Health researchers have also linked high nitrate levels in one part of northern Indiana to miscarriages.

Like the wetlands law, this bill will promote excessive residential development in inappropriate areas, rather than redirecting housing to places where infrastructure can be built to handle it.

The proposed law requires the Department of Health and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to do a five-year study of the potential harmful impacts of nitrates in groundwater and the costs of meeting the drinking-water standard. Meanwhile, homeowners on private wells in agricultural areas might be well advised to test their drinking water for nitrates.

Air Quality Up in Smoke with Leaf-Burning Bill?

Also troubling is a bill authored by Sen. Sue Landske (R-Cedar Lake) that would enable local governments in Lake and Porter counties to allow leaf burning during April and October for residents without leaf pickup service. Burning leaves emit fine particulates that can be especially dangerous to small children, the elderly, and people with respiratory or heart diseases. Leaf smoke also has many hazardous chemicals, including carbon monoxide and benzo(a)pyrene. Mulching or composting are much more environmentally sound ways of handling dead leaves and can be done in about the same amount of time that it takes to burn them.

Good Bills Get Sidetracked

Some bills that would protect the environment received committee hearings, but industry opposition sidetracked them. Rep. Ryan Dvorak (D-South Bend) offered an excellent bill that would have provided companies with an incentive to develop solar, wind, or water-generated electricity to power their operations. The bill would have required utilities to accept excess power onto their transmission grids and credit the generating company through an arrangement called "net metering." Even though many members of the Commerce and Economic Development Committee that heard the bill said they liked the idea, the committee bowed before the opposition expressed by electric utility spokespeople at the hearing. Bowing to the committee members' wishes, Rep. Dvorak amended the bill so that it would require the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to develop a net-metering rule. Since the commission is even more influenced by utility pressure than the legislature, it will take continued efforts by the public to achieve a rule that will effectively promote alternative energy sources.

Sen. Joseph Zakas (R-Granger) authored a bill to prohibit ships from dumping ballast water and other wastes into Lake Michigan and the Ohio River. Ballast water is a source of invasive species like the zebra mussel that have had a devastating impact on the environment and have also harmed economic interests such as the fishing industry. After representatives from the shipping industry and the Indiana Port Authority spoke against the bill at a meeting of the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee because of cost and practicality concerns, committee chair Sen. Beverly Gard (R-Greenfield) requested Sen. Zakas to ask the Environmental Quality Service Council to study the issue this summer.

While the threat of invasive species warrants study, the Indiana legislature is tardy in getting to it. For a comparison of what other states have done and a thorough review of the issue, interested persons should visit the biological pollution section of the Northeast Midwest Institute's Web site at www.nemw.org/biopollute.htm.

Other environmentally progressive bills didn't even receive a committee hearing, notably a smart-growth bill authored by Sen. Frank Mrvan (D-Hammond) and a bill to create a sustainable energy institute submitted by Rep. Scott Pelath (D-Michigan City).

Disappointing Session Could Be Even Worse

While this legislative session is shaping up to be another disappointing one for the environment, it would be even worse if environmentalists had not been calling their legislators. A great deal of thanks is owed those citizens who have taken the trouble to call their legislators to urge that the over ride of HB 1798 be defeated. The list of the legislators who voted against the override is available by e-mail or hard copy. E-mail Bill Hayden at haydenb@bloomington.in.us for the e-mail copy. Call or write Lori Hazlett at the Hoosier Chapter office for a hard copy.

Note from Bill Hayden, Hoosier Chapter Legislative Chair

While this session may not look very promising from an environmental viewpoint, environmentalists are having an effect. Thirty House members voted against the override of HB 1798 in spite of other provisions that were strongly supported by other powerful interests.

HB 1798 will be amended to fix one of worst features thanks to the EPA threats of taking away Indiana's authorization to implement the federal Clean Water Act. However major problems will remain, and the only way they will ever be addressed is for the members of the General Assembly to hear from their constituents.

Unfortunately most legislators never hear from their constituents on environmental issues. It is critical that the Hoosier Chapter of the Sierra Club recruit and train activists in as many legislative districts as possible-but especially in those districts whose legislators play leadership roles on environmental bills. These activists would play an extremely important role at critical times during the legislative session. In other words, we need you!

If you would like to help, please e-mail Lina Gordy at lina.gordy@hoosier.sierraclub.org or call her at (765) 730-5465.


Copyright © 2007 Hoosier Chapter Sierra Club, all rights reserved.[03/01/04]efp

Spring 2004