Every year when the list of new bills for the Indiana legislative session posts, Hoosiers may feel dizzy with deja vu.
Various bills — ones that would protect the environment and Hoosiers from pollution, develop solutions to a changing climate or ensure consumers’ utility bills stay affordable — keep popping up year after year. And over and over again, they have died.
During recent legislative sessions, dozens of bills with a stated aim of safeguarding the environment and public health have failed to pass out of committee. Others never even received a hearing. In fact, during the 2021 session, the House Environmental Affairs Committee did not meet once in the first half of session, despite having more than 10 bills to look at.
While advocates and some lawmakers say these bills are important to solve environmental problems, others question at what cost. Throughout the years, some groups and legislators have raised concerns over the potential impacts additional laws could have on industry throughout the state. Such pushback and lack of urgency has kept many environment-related bills stagnant.
There are several environmental topics in particular that continue to see related bills time and again — their authors and advocates stress the need to keep pushing until the community and legislature understand their importance.
“I want to give a shout-out to Hoosiers who are organizing and pushing in their grassroots efforts to see some change in Indiana,” said Sen. Shelli Yoder, a Bloomington Democrat who serves on both the Senate’s Utilities and Environmental committees. Yoder herself has proposed similar bills more than once in back-to-back sessions.
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“I know that it can be hard to keep pushing on environmental and climate topics,” she said.
Here are seven environmental topics that have continued to fall short in the Indiana General Assembly.
Coal ash pollution
The majority of Indiana’s electricity has, and continues to, come from coal. When coal is burned, it produces a byproduct: coal ash. That needs to be stored somewhere, and Indiana has more coal ash ponds than any other state in the country.
Coal ash contains an alphabet soup of toxic chemicals including mercury, arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals that pollute waterways, poison wildlife and can cause respiratory illnesses among people who live near these ponds, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Indiana is among the worst states in the country when it comes to cleaning up its toxic coal ash pits, a report from last year found. Extensive IndyStar coverage has detailed the issues and compliance failures at 16 leaking ash disposal sites across the state.
That’s why environmental experts, advocates and even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say states need to clean them up. While other states are taking steps to safely and cleanly close these pits, advocates say Indiana is not.
Bills have been proposed to move Indiana in that direction and help the state establish goals and requirements around cleaning up coal ash since 2021, but they haven’t received a hearing. Utilities have maintained they are following federal guidelines, and the industry has said “clean closure” — similar to what’s proposed in the bills — can be very expensive.
Rep. Pat Boy, who has ash ponds in her district and has proposed cleanup bills, was previously told her bill “was the only bill worth hearing,” she said, “and I was really excited because it’s a really important topic for the whole state.”
But her bill was never heard: “It’s really frustrating,” the Democrat from Northwest Indiana previously told IndyStar.
Boy and other lawmakers are at it again and the Senate bill has bipartisan authors.
- HB 1190 would require the owner and operator of an ash impoundment to remove all the ash and return the site to stable conditions.
- SB 399 would create a set of conditions that require the removal of coal ash and also stipulates ways it can be safely used.
Septic system inspections
There are as many as 1 million septic systems in Indiana — not just in the rural areas of the state, but also in urban areas including Indianapolis. Still, there are very few records on all the systems that exist, let alone their condition.
The Indiana State Department of Health estimates that as many as 200,000 of these systems are inadequate and are failing to protect environmental and public health. Some environmental organizations think the problem might be much worse: estimating that anywhere from 30% to 70% of septic systems in any given county are failing.
According to the state, it’s estimated that every failing septic system can discharge more than 76,000 gallons of untreated wastewater into Indiana’s groundwaters and surface waters every year. That means the failing systems are introducing, at minimum, approximately 15 billion gallons of raw sewage into the environment on an annual basis.
There are harmful bacteria such as E. Coli in that waste, and ISDH lists more than a dozen different diseases as being caused by sewage or sewage contaminated water.
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However, there is no state requirement for inspections of septic systems and only a few individual counties have ordinances for inspections. Bills that would establish inspection requirements for septics when a house is sold or property is transferred have been proposed for at least the last five years.
“I don’t think any of us would be OK to say we are dealing with human waste in our water,” said Christian Freitag, executive director of the Conservation Law Center at Indiana University. “The time of transfer is a solution — it might not be the magic wand to fix everything, but it’s something.”
Still, some in the real estate industry are concerned about how an inspection requirement could impact home sales.
A set of septic inspection bills are back again, both authored by Republicans.
- HB 1218 requires that if a property for sale is connected to a septic system, that system must be inspected and the results included on the disclosure.
- HB 1647 provides that before the transfer or sale of a property with a septic system, an inspection must be done and the report provided to the local health department.
Factory farm inspections
For the fourth straight year, Sen. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, has proposed requiring annual inspections of some large farms. The bill applies to CAFOs, or confined animal feeding operations — defined in the bill as operations with at least 300 cattle, 600 swine or sheep, 30,000 fowl or 500 horses.
The bill would require the Department of Environmental Management to review each operation’s self-produced report outlining the operations of the CAFOs and associated manure structures. IDEM would then conduct on-site inspections to verify the submitted report.
IDEM currently conducts visits to CAFOs one time every five years or in response to a complaint.
The environmental concerns over CAFOs include pollution discharge from manure and wastewater, according to advocates. These discharges have been found to contain nitrogen and phosphorus, pathogens, hormones and antibiotics.
People who run these farms, however, are quick to point out that they comply with a variety of environmental laws already and oppose further regulation, expressing concerns on how it would impact operations. Some say the state regulations currently in place are sufficient.
CAFOs without discharges do not need to apply for pollution permits, but those that do will need to put together a nutrient management plan for the runoff pollutants.
- SB 91 would tighten the time between inspections from every five years to every year.
Climate task force and solutions
Climate change solutions in Indiana are still being handled piecemeal across local governments, institutions and nonprofits despite efforts to organize a state task force.
Last year, bills in both the House and Senate sought to form a state-run task force to focus on Indiana’s adaptation to the changing climate. Neither was even heard in committee. The state’s General Assembly also failed to pass a resolution last year acknowledging climate change as a serious problem for the state.
These efforts to establish a state focus on climate change were the result of a youth movement out of Lafayette called Confront the Climate Crisis.
Other bills focused on studying carbon emissions and green industries have also failed to pass.
Indiana is a heavy manufacturing and industrial state, and concerns have been voiced about whether efforts to curb emissions could harm this major sector of Indiana’s economy.
Still, there are renewed efforts this year to bring climate change solutions to the statehouse, acknowledging the growth opportunities in green industries. Some of this year’s bills have bipartisan authors.
- HB 1193 would require the Department of Environmental Management to conduct a greenhouse gas emissions inventory program to provide grant money to local governments.
- HB 1453 and SB 335 would again try to establish a climate change task force that reviews sustainable and clean energy solutions.
- HB 1604 would create a commission to study climate change’s impacts in the state.
Lead testing in schools
Ever since the Flint water crisis several years ago, lead has been at the forefront of many people’s minds. And there are multiple pathways of exposure, including paint, soil, water and more.
Lead poisoning is known to cause a variety of devastating adverse health impacts: development delays and learning disabilities, fatigue, pain throughout the body, behavioral issues and more. Medical experts have said there is no safe level of lead.
Indiana legislators passed a law in 2020 that required testing drinking water in schools for lead. But that requirement applied only to school buildings serving kindergarten through grade 12 — it did not include testing in pre-kindergarten and day care centers. Children are most vulnerable when they are younger and their brains are developing.
That means numerous students across the state are left unprotected, according to experts and advocates. Since the law passed in 2020, there have been bills each year — ultimately unsuccessful — that would expand the testing requirement to those younger children.
Still, some concerns persist on how to pay for both the testing as well as remediation needed when high levels are detected. Advocates worry those questions have slowed progress.
“I’m sure that parents who have their children in those facilities would have a lot of appreciation that we will care enough about these children to want to do the right thing,” said Rep. Carolyn Jackson, a Democrat from Hammond who authored the 2020 law and unsuccessful bills since.
Jackson is trying again this year.
- HB 1138 would require lead testing in the drinking water of preschool and child care facilities across the state and trigger action if concentrations are above certain levels.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl, are widespread and long-lasting chemicals used to make products and coatings that are heat resistant and repel water and oil. These chemicals can be found in clothing, nonstick cooking surfaces and other consumer items.
Due to how widely the chemicals are used and how long they last in the environment, PFAS are found in water, air and soil around the world, according to the EPA. They then end up in people and animals in low levels.
Current research suggests exposure to high levels of PFAS can cause health concerns including decreased fertility, developmental effects in children, increased cancer risk and reduced immune systems.
The Indiana legislature, since 2020, has tried passing a number of bills to reduce PFAS exposure and gain a better understanding of how widespread contamination may be. One, which prohibits some firefighting foams from containing intentionally added PFAS, has become law.
One problem Indiana faced while retiring PFAS-laden firefighting foam was prohibitive disposal costs. To combat the issue, Gov. Holcomb set aside $1.5 million to kickstart the program. But costs of PFAS regulation continue to be a concern.
This year, the legislature is looking at three bills regarding PFAS.
- HB 1219 and SB 482 would establish a program to test blood samples of for PFAS exposure.
- HB 1341 would require fire departments to purchase gear only if it contains a label indicating if it contains PFAS.
Energy consumer protections
Indiana used to have some of the lowest energy utility bills in the country but now finds itself in the middle of the pack as costs for customers continue to rise.
There have long been a variety of bills geared toward protecting utility consumers, helping to provide more options for them as well as keep their bills affordable. These bills have shown up in a variety of ways: energy efficiency, distributed generation such as rooftop and community solar, net metering and consumer protections.
Advocates say distributed solar can help consumers be more independent, access cleaner energy and potentially lower bills. They add that reinstating some type of net metering, which credits customers for the energy they send back to the grid, can make solar more accessible to a greater number of residents.
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And consumer protection bills would require utilities to provide more information on disconnections and arrearages as well as establish different billing options and flexibility for customers that need assistance.
“It’s never been clear to us on why these types of consumer protection bills don’t get heard,” said Kerwin Olson, the executive director of the consumer advocacy group Citizens Action Coalition. “These are very good bills with very important protections.”
Utilities, however, have said there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution across their different consumer bases and have raised concerns on the costs of some of these programs.
There are several bills this year renewing efforts to give more options and protections for energy utility consumers.
- SB 40 would prohibit disconnecting certain customers during the hot summer months, similar to the current winter moratorium.
- SB 254 would require utilities to provide data on disconnections and bill arrearages as well as establish different payment options to give customers more flexibility.
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Karl Schneider is an IndyStar environment reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @karlstartswithk.
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IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.