Indiana used to have to post public notices in newspapers when a company applied for a permit to put pollution into the air. But the Indiana Department of Environmental Management wants to move away from paper ads.
The agency says it costs about $17,000 a year to print drafts of air permits in local papers. They also don't have to — the Environmental Protection Agency stopped requiring states to do so two years ago. Now they can publish them online.
But critics of the proposed change argue this will leave the public less informed. According to a federal communications agency, 23 percent of Hoosiers don’t have internet access. In an email statement, IDEM said that those without internet can sign up to get text alerts about public notices at their local library or request notices from IDEM through the mail.
Jesse Kharbanda is the executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. He says IDEM should make this information available on as many platforms as possible. Kharbanda says those who are most vulnerable — children, expecting mothers, and those with chronic illnesses — especially need to know.
“It’s critical that government make a very proactive effort to inform the people as to whether an air polluting facility is going to be expanding or coming into a community,” Kharbanda says.
But some doubt if cost is even the main reason for IDEM's proposal. Steven Key is the executive director for the Hoosier State Press Association. He says only posting notices online is probably more convenient for IDEM.
“The idea is not to make the job necessarily easy for the bureaucracy, the job is to get the public the information that they need to have," says Key.
Key also doubts that even those with internet access often go to IDEM's website at all.
"Families with kids and sports and school activities are not going to at the end of the day say, 'OK, honey, now let's get on the computer and start checking government websites to see what kind of actions they're contemplating that might impact our lives," he says.
The Hoosier Environmental Council, the Hoosier State Press Association, and the Public Notice Resource Center — a national nonprofit that looks at public notice policy — all expressed opposition to the change.
The PNRC also cited examples where the public was not aware of a public notice online until a newspaper brought it to light.
The second public comment period ends on Friday May 18. Those who want to may comment by contacting Keelyn Walsh at firstname.lastname@example.org. IDEM says there will be another opportunity for public input in the future.
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.