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File photos
Salamonie Reservoir visitors were warned in 2012 about excessive phosphorous runoff. Lawmakers took no action on the issue in the recent 2013 session.

‘The better angels won’

Algae, such as this at Salamonie, can affect the skin, eyes and stomach.

How did the environment fare in the recently concluded session of the Indiana General Assembly? Legislators wisely resisted the most egregious of the proposed legislation, but also missed some opportunities to improve environmental protection and Hoosiers’ economic interests.

“It was great in that the better angels won,” said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

State lawmakers acted prudently by not passing the infamous ag-gag bill. The proposed bill, even after all of the changes, ran the risk of infringing on First Amendment rights. Considering that there are already laws in place to protect property owners from trespassing, it makes no sense to adopt a law that potentially would punish whistleblowers while shielding wrongdoers.

Kharbanda said passage of the ag-gag bill would have been harmful and got a lot of media attention. “But even more significant is the Right to Farm Act, which we labeled the ‘Right to Harm Act.’ ”

Advancing the proposed constitutional amendment would have enshrined special protections for farmers in the Indiana constitution. The amendment would have made it unconstitutional for future lawmakers to adopt laws regulating agriculture. It would also have restricted any laws protecting public health or property rights for Hoosiers who are not farmers.

Proponents of the constitutional amendment are likely to push it again next session. If approved in 2014, it could return for a vote in the separately elected 2015 session and be placed on the November general election ballot for statewide approval that year.

It’s also likely ag-gag legislation will rear its head again.

“It’s our hope legislators will recognize the current approach is fine for balancing agriculture and environmental protection,” Kharbanda said. “If you put undue emphasis on factory farming, so many other aspects of rural life are overlooked.”

If state legislators give large agricultural businesses such as confined animal feeding operations undue legal protection, it limits local governments’ ability to address things such as noise or odor problems. That could damage a smaller farm located near a CAFO that is interested in promoting agri-tourism, for example.

Legislators successfully avoided passing any of the worst environmental bills, but they also missed several “win/win opportunities,” Kharbanda said.

The most obvious example is lawmakers’ failure to pass the bills addressing phosphorus pollution.

Excessive phosphorus runoff from lawn fertilizers and agriculture has caused the contamination of several Indiana lakes. High phosphorus levels can produce toxic blue-green algae blooms that cause skin rashes, eye irritation and stomachaches.

It was a toxic algae infestation that led officials to restrict activities on Grand Lake St. Marys in Ohio three years ago. That state lost millions of dollars in tourism revenue because of the pollution. Algae blooms were also linked to the deaths of two dogs at Salamonie Reservoir last summer.

The phosphorus legislation would have protected Indiana lakes and Indiana’s economic interests.

According to the Indiana Office of Tourism Development, the tourism industry brings in about $9 billion each year. Kharbanda said at least $5 billion of that comes from water-based tourism.

The environmental council was also advocating for other environmental initiatives that failed, including efforts to expand mass transit and bolster funding for conservation in the budget.

“Our job will be to continue to build relationships with legislators,” Kharbanda said.

“That may sound a little banal, but we are finding that a lot of these legislators come in with a preconceived notion of who environmentalists are and what they are all about. We want to do a more effective job of making people realize that the things we are talking about are commonly held Hoosier values.”