The head of the state’s environmental agency said the 2021 Indiana Legislative session was “pretty tough” for the agency.
In the first meeting of the Environmental Rules Board since the end of the regular annual legislative session, Indiana Department of Environmental Management Commissioner Bruno Pigott said the agency was “not pleased” with some of the legislation that was approved by lawmakers.
“We’ve just emerged from what I think our agency would call a pretty tough legislative session,” Pigott told the board.
Pigott said two new laws would affect IDEM directly: Public Law 160, the controversial bill that removed state protections for most state wetlands, and Public Law 100, which sets in motion the establishment of a state permitting program for coal combustion residuals, also known as coal ash.
The wetlands law, formerly known as Senate Bill 389, originally sought to eliminate all state protections for Indiana’s wetlands. Pigott said the intercession of members of the House of Representatives who amended the bill and former senator and current ERB chair Beverly Gard, who wrote an editorial warning about the effects of the legislation, helped reduce the scope of the bill.
Pigott said the new law eliminates all state protections for Class I wetlands, which make up more than 53% of the state’s 800,000 acres of wetlands, and significantly reduces protections for Class II wetlands, which make up about 31% of the state’s wetlands.
The law keeps protections for Class III wetlands, which are legally defined as wetlands that support “more than minimal” wildlife or aquatic habitat or hydrologic function, that have been in place since 2004.
It also establishes a 14-member taskforce that will study wetlands and wetland mitigation strategies.
Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the bill into law despite vigorous opposition from a coalition of more than 100 groups, including environmental and conservation groups, regional water management authorities, local governments and farmers.
Holcomb said he weighed the bill’s intent to protect property rights against limitations on land protections and believed Hoosier farmers and landowners would continue to be “careful stewards of the land.”
Holcomb said the new state budget included more funding for land acquisition and conservation efforts.
Pigott said the agency would carry out its duties notwithstanding the agency’s opinion of the legislation.
“We're less than satisfied with the outcome of the bill. We recognize that it was different from the bill that was introduced initially and are pleased that protections for Class III wetlands — those are wetlands that are forested wetlands — continue at the same rate that they were in the past,” Pigott told the board. “We will participate in in the task force. We appreciate all the work that's been done to support our position and our ability to testify and work with legislators to try to change the legislation. As is the case for every law that goes through, we are tasked with implementing the law. And we will do so despite our positions regarding the law.”
Public Law 100, formerly known as Senate Bill 271, orders IDEM to establish a state coal ash permitting program, among other items.
The bill was originally introduced by IDEM to remove IDEM’s responsibility to assess industrial waste control facility property tax exemptions and to change where the state posted its impaired waters list.
An amendment presented by Rep. Mike Speedy, vice chair of the House Environmental Affairs Committee, rewrote the Indiana Code to allow the state to administer federal coal ash standards at the state level, like the agency does for water and air regulations.
“Currently, the agency does review closure plans for what we call CCR, or coal combustion residuals, but it was [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] that was set to issue permits to facilities that would stay open. The amendment was added to the bill that would require IDEM to apply to run that program as opposed to US EPA. That's now a part of the law. And we will be applying to US EPA to establish a permitting program for coal combustion residuals,” Pigott said.
Three states have applied for state coal ash permitting programs. The EPA approved programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, but only partially approved a permit application submitted by Texas.