INDIANAPOLIS — As the state legislative session continues, one of Indiana’s leading environmental groups is aggressively pushing its agenda.

Foremost, the Hoosier Environmental Council, a 35-year-old nonprofit organization, is calling on citizens to oppose House Bill 1266, which would reduce the ability of local government to police potentially damaging construction site runoff.

Essentially, the bill would stop local water and sewage boards from setting for new construction sites runoff requirements that are stricter than those established by the state. 

While state-mandated requirements might be good enough for some locations, Indra Frank, director of environmental health and water policy at the HEC, argues against a “one-size-fits-all” statewide policy.

The problem with construction site runoff it twofold, she says.

First, when topsoil is piled up on site, a heavy rain can wash tons of it into lakes, rivers and storm drains.

“In rivers and lakes, it has a smothering effect. You can see drops in fish populations … or increased algae blooms,” Frank said.

According to research conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, construction sites can cause 10-20 times more soil runoff than agricultural land.

While aquifers can help filter topsoil from a body of water, they are a costly and time-consuming solution to a problem that, environmentalists argue, should be stopped at its source.

Proponents of HB 1266 argue it would make submitting construction-site assessment plans easier because companies could count on identical environmental regulations across the state.

The state legislation requires a runoff plan only for construction sites larger than one acre.

“Many localities, where there are steep slopes, or where they are right beside a lake — lake front homes that are less than an acre — they make sure that runoff will not flow into the lake,” Frank said. “If this bill were to pass, there would be no protections for these types of sites.”

Here’s a look at two other legislative issues that would affect Hoosier energy consumers and the environment:

ENERGY CONSERVATION

Tim Maloney, senior policy director at the HEC, said Hoosiers should take a closer look at their energy bills if House Bill 1470 becomes law.

The legislation would reduce regulatory review of some transmission and distribution projects of energy companies.

“HB 1470 builds on prior laws (adopted in 2011 and 2013) to weaken the power of the highly trained Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to do its job of properly regulating monopolies,” Maloney explained.

He said the bill would enable energy companies to add charges to municipal payers’ bills without oversight from an independent regulatory commission charged with protecting consumers from paying for unneeded upgrades.

“The whole idea of the regulatory oversight program is if they want to raise rates, they have to bring a proposal to the commission to get assessment of whether the cost of the investment is justified and whether it can be passed along to consumers,” Maloney explained. “It (the bill) eliminates that review, which helps keep down the costs that are passed on to consumers.”

Protestors gathered outside the Indiana Michigan Power building in downtown Fort Wayne on March 7 to oppose the ordinance. 

Indiana Michigan Power supports the legislation.

“I&M works with our regulators and stakeholders to ensure that all investments made are done so with the impact to our customers in mind - both in reliability and in cost,” I&M spokesperson Tracy Warner said in a statement. “I&M customer electric rates are competitive and below the national average.”

STATE BUDGET

The HEC and other environmental groups are calling on the General Assembly to increase financial support in the upcoming budget for drinking water safety.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s budget earmarked for drinking water has been slashed by 18 percent since 2007, Frank said. According to IDEM, the number of drinking water staff has fallen from 62 in 2005 to 48.

“Our proposal is to restore 12 staff members, which would cost about $780,000 per year,” Frank said. “The Importance of drinking water is paramount.”

Another budget initiative would increase funding for wild land and wildlife conservation across the state. Maloney said funding for forests and nature preserves has fallen since the establishment of the President Harrison Conservation Trust in 2016.

“When these programs have been well funded, they have done well,” Maloney said. “We think it’s time for the General Assembly to take action.”

The legislative session is scheduled to end in April, but Maloney and Frank said there’s still time for residents to call their state senators and state representatives to push for a pro-environment agenda.

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