An amendment to a state Senate bill would let Indiana approve permits for coal ash waste instead of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Groups concerned about coal ash pollution worry the state wouldn’t be as protective of public health and the environment.
Rep. Mike Speedy (R-Indianapolis) proposed the amendment in SB 271 after hearing from the Indiana Energy Association. He said having the Indiana Department of Environmental Management approve permits would be more efficient, save utilities and ratepayers money, and allow utilities to work with an agency they’re more familiar with.
“The same professionals that help them with existing regulatory issues would also be there in place at Hoosier rates and not D.C. rates — and that would be a cost savings," Speedy said.
As of 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency now allows states to make up their own coal ash permitting program as long as it’s approved by the agency and “as protective as” federal coal ash rules. Indra Frank with the Hoosier Environmental Council said the problem is — that language is vague.
If the program gets approved, Indiana could allow utilities to keep coal ash ponds open longer or could be less strict about keeping coal ash separate from groundwater.
“So we're concerned that the state will defer to the industry when it's creating this permitting program. Rather than writing a program that protects Hoosiers and protects our natural resources to the degree we would like to see,” Frank said.
Frank also questions if the underfunded and understaffed agency would be able to handle a new program.
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Susan Thomas is with Just Transition Northwest Indiana — a group trying to ensure the utility NIPSCO safely disposes of coal ash waste as it shuts down its coal plants.
She said only an old steel wall separates Lake Michigan from toxic coal ash on the grounds of NIPSCO’s Michigan City coal plant. As lake levels rise, more of that ash could seep into the lake and a nearby creek — but Thomas said IDEM hasn’t required the utility to excavate it.
“So because it's not even included in the new permit — the new plan, IDEM just sort of let that go," she said.
Though the EPA is primarily responsible for granting permits for coal ash ponds, IDEM does oversee the closure of coal ash ponds in the state
Rep. Doug Gutwein (R-Francesville) chairs the House Environmental Affairs committee, where the bill was amended. However, he refused to hear any of the 13 House bills assigned to his committee this session — including two that aimed to better protect water from coal ash pollution.
Gutwein said the reason he decided not to hear the two coal ash bills was because the coal ash issue was being handled at the federal level — which, if SB 271 passes and the state’s coal ash permitting program is approved — would not be the case. Gutwein did agree to hear bills assigned to him from the Senate.
Frank said it’s concerning that this new amendment was adopted very readily by the committee.
“It was adopted without discussion and without testimony. The committee took the request from industry and added it to the bill by consent,” she said.
The bill now moves on to the House Ways and Means committee for consideration.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.