Even after being presented with a list of more than 100 conservation, wildlife, and other organizations asking Gov. Eric Holcomb to veto Senate Bill 389, he signed the controversial wetlands bill into law on Thursday.
Many Knox County residents were among those saddened by the governor’s decision.
Wabash Valley Progressives Vice Chairman Will Drews said he was “disappointed.”
“I’m not shocked,” he said. “I’m just disappointed.”
Chair of the Knox County Democratic Party Marsha Fleming, too, shares local conservationists’ concerns that Gov. Holcomb ignored a large segment of Indiana’s population.
“It always concerns me when either political party does anything to hurt the environment,” Fleming said.
Holcomb himself had taken issue with the bill. His signature follows reservations earlier in the legislative session when he said that the wetlands repeal was “a cause for concern.”
These “concerns” came from everywhere from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce to private citizens against the bill, all of them claiming that it would hurt the state’s economy, wildlife, and water management. Many believe this bill will lead to the destruction of crucial natural resources and increase expenses.
The wetlands measure passed out of the Legislature April 14 and has sparked bipartisan opposition within the Republican-dominated Legislature. Retroactive as of Jan. 1, it eliminates a 2003 law that requires the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to issue permits for construction and development in state-regulated wetlands and end enforcement proceedings against landowners accused of violating current law.
Ray McCormick, a local conservationist, has been fighting for Indiana’s wetlands for 35 years on both the state and national level. He has recently begun a hunger strike, one he says he plans to continue even though the bill has now been signed into law.
“We have to fight,” McCormick said. “We’ll have to take legal action and take authority of the Clean Water Act, working with people I know in Washington D.C.”
McCormick and his supporters believe that, even though the bill has been signed, the issue still warrants continued action by conservationists.
And he believes a reversal eventually possible.
“Homeowners should not be building new homes on wetlands,” McCormick said. “The Clean Water Act has been in place since 1972. This is an attack on the Clean Water Act by the state of Indiana.”
The Clean Water Act is the primary federal law in the United States governing water pollution. Its objective is to restore and maintain the integrity of the nation’s waterways, and it provides funding to states for the improvement of wastewater treatment and for maintaining the integrity of wetlands, among other things.
Months-long pushback against the bill prompted lawmakers to scale back the intended repeal earlier this month, reducing wetland permitting regulations for croplands and temporary streams, rather than for all wetlands.
Still, Democratic members of the General Assembly, as well as a member of the Senate Republican Caucus, urged the Republican governor to veto the bill last week, citing “long term consequences” and a need for “more in-depth study than what was accomplished in limited committee times during a legislative session in a pandemic.
In a separate letter delivered to Holcomb’s office Monday, more than 100 organizations called on the governor to veto the bill they claimed will “cost the state dearly,” when accounting for increased flooding and erosion expenses, loss of groundwater recharge, fewer tourism opportunities and loss of diverse wildlife “that makes Indiana special.”
“This bill opens the door to irrevocable impacts on our rich natural history and puts the wellbeing of millions of Hoosiers at risk, now and well into the future,” the letter said. “Indiana needs a thorough, inclusive, and deliberative approach to changing the law on such a vital natural resource.
Republican bill author Sen. Chris Garten and other sponsors argued throughout the Legislative session that vague language in the current state law, over-enforcement by state regulators and high mitigation fees that drive up housing costs prompted the drafting.
They contend removal of state protections would help developers and grow the housing market.