INDIANAPOLIS — An environmental group and Indiana's newspaper association criticized a state agency's plans to stop publishing newspaper notices on public hearings about proposed air quality policy changes, saying the shift will inevitably leave some residents in the dark about policies that could impact their health.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management plans to stop publishing newspaper advertisements on Dec. 1 notifying the public about state Air Pollution Control Board hearings on plans to bring noncompliant areas of Indiana into compliance with federal air quality regulations.
IDEM also will stop publishing newspaper notices on hearings before that panel on proposed changes to state air pollution rules.
Agency spokeswoman Amy Hartsock said Friday that eliminating the newspaper notices will shift IDEM entirely to informing the public about the hearings through its existing email notifications, notices posted on its website and postcards mailed to people who sign up to get information that way.
Dropping the newspaper notices will save Indiana about $7,500 each year, but Hartsock said that wasn't the agency's motive. She said IDEM wanted to decrease the time needed to alert the public about hearings, speed up the process of finalizing policy actions and reduce agency resources devoted to placing the newspaper notices and verifying that they had been published.
"The costs savings are a benefit but not the original goal," Hartsock said.
Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, said the group that represents about 165 of Indiana's paid circulation newspaper believes IDEM's decision was "well-meaning" but believes the end result will be that some people will be shut out of public policy discussions.
He said dropping the advertisements will largely limit participation to regulated industries and public advocacy organizations, such as environmental groups.
"What they've done, from our perspective, is they've gone from public notices to special interest notices," Key said. "Those are going to be the only people who are going to really know to check the IDEM website on a regular basis or who've signed up" for electronic notices.
Hartsock said more than 90 percent of the interested parties on IDEM's email and mail distribution lists are individual citizens. Public notices published since March have informed newspaper readers about the upcoming change and contained information on their options for being notified about the hearings, she said.
Jesse Kharbanda, the executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said he expects IDEM's decision will lead to a reduction in public awareness and engagement on air quality policy decisions. He said some Indiana residents lack Internet access and local newspapers are often those individuals' primary source of information about proposals such as changes in air pollution rules.
"The government needs to do everything possible in a cost-effective way to get the word out on projects that could have potentially important pollution impacts so the public at least has the choice of whether or not to communicate their concerns," Kharbanda said. "The choice isn't there if part of the public is in the dark."
He said air quality issues are of particular concern given Indiana's long-running air pollution problems that pose health risks to the elderly, children and people with respiratory ailments.
Hartsock said IDEM worked closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on its decision to end newspaper notices for air quality hearings. She said Maryland has already made the shift and other states are working with the EPA to follow.