David Hoppe

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:: Thomas Easterly. Again.

Or, what we’re learning about our new Guv

by David Hoppe

Uh-oh, here comes trouble.

If you’ve been wondering what it’s going to be like in Indiana with Mike Pence as governor and Republican super majorities in the state’s House and Senate, look no further than IDEM, the ironically named Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Thomas Easterly has been in charge of IDEM since 2005, when he was appointed to that post by Pence’s predecessor, Mitch Daniels. Although there is no shortage of glossy photography books extolling Indiana’s pastoral landscape, environmental stewardship has never been a Hoosier strong point. So Daniels had a chance to make a real difference with his selection of a candidate to oversee the quality of the state’s air, water and soil.

Unfortunately for the state’s public health, Daniels chose to understand environmental management as another form of economic development. As far he was concerned, the problem with our environment had less to do with what we were breathing, drinking and eating than with rolling out a welcome mat for businesses with a history of making messes.

So Daniels hired Easterly, a guy who had spent the better part of 20 years helping big steel and utility companies play dodge ‘em with state and federal environmental regulations. “My boss is very clear,” said Easterly at the time, “we want to protect the environment, but we also want to have a prosperous economy to raise the income of Hoosiers.”

Well, as we know now, raising Hoosier incomes didn’t work out the way Daniels and Easterly hoped it would. Indiana ranks 42nd in per capita income. And, while Daniels and Easterly both like to boast that Indiana’s environment is better now than it was before, guess what: Forbes, a business magazine, no less, ranked us 49th out of 50 states in terms of air and water quality, hazardous waste management, carbon footprint and energy consumption.

With numbers like these, you’d think it might be time to find somebody new to run IDEM. I mean, imagine how you’d feel if this was your track record and you had to sit down with your boss for a performance review.

Not a problem, as far as Mike Pence is concerned. He wasted little time in announcing that he was retaining Thomas Easterly to keep up the good work.

This work apparently includes giving power point presentations to industry lobbyists whose jobs involve helping their clients get around or, better yet, scuttle environmental regulations. Last week, the Star reported that Easterly spoke at the “States and Nation Policy Summit” in November, a conference sponsored in part by six coal and energy companies, including Peabody Coal, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity and the Edison Electric Institute. During this presentation, Easterly reportedly criticized three federal air-quality rules.

He talked about how Indiana had successfully sued to block the Cross-State Pollution Rule that is intended to protect the public from the negative effects of coal-burning power plants.

He knocked regulations to limit mercury pollution in fish from coal-burning plants, even though the state lists nearly 350 Indiana waterways as impaired from mercury pollution found in fish tissue.

And he blasted a federal rule aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants.

In all these cases, Easterly argued that the regulations would cost a lot of money to implement, create higher costs for consumers, and wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway. This fit nicely with a resolution that was given to everyone attending the conference amounting to a game plan for how states could obstruct the work of federal air quality regulators.

Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council was quoted in the Star article, complaining that while Easterly was “hired to be an unbiased civil servant, [he] is essentially lobbying for a position more favorable to polluters.”

Easterly seems to think that’s a good thing. During his tenure, IDEM may not have succeeded in making Hoosiers richer or more healthy, but it has certainly made life a little easier for any business whose byproduct is poison. Look at a history of IDEM over the past seven years and you’ll find one instance after another of the agency working with polluters to modify permits, redefine regulatory terms, like including incineration under recycling guidelines, and suspending compliance deadlines.

This pattern dovetails with yet another recent finding, in which United Health ranked Indiana in the bottom ten in the nation in terms of public health. Just another feather in Thomas Easterly’s cap, apparently.

The tragedy is that Hoosiers are absorbing the effects of officially sanctioned environmental mismanagement based on a false premise. Time and again we are told that pollution is the price we pay for prosperity. If the state’s economy was booming and paychecks flush, this argument might, at least, make us feel conflicted. But Indiana’s bottom-feeding rankings in income, health and environmental quality suggest that, when it comes to top tier employers, this state may not be a destination so much as a place to avoid.

Like Daniels before him, Mike Pence had his chance to make a real difference for Indiana. He could have selected somebody new to be in charge of IDEM. Instead, he validated one of this state’s bleakest performers. This isn’t just a lost opportunity. This is trouble.