Holcomb, Statehouse leaders try to assure Greater Lafayette on LEAP pipeline
In a confab revealed this week, Gov. Eric Holcomb, along with House and Senate leaders, flew to Purdue to meet face-to-face with Greater Lafayette leaders about growing pushback on pipeline concept
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HOLCOMB, STATEHOUSE LEADERS TRY TO ASSURE GREATER LAFAYETTE ON LEAP PIPELINE
Greater Lafayette officials, in the midst of mounting pushback against an Indiana Economic Development plan to tap and take water from Wabash River aquifers, have fresh assurances from Gov. Eric Holcomb and the General Assembly’s top two lawmakers that a pipeline to LEAP district developments two counties away is on hold, for now.
Holcomb flew to Purdue Airport Friday, bringing House Speaker Todd Huston and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray and other state officials for a one-hour meeting with Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski, West Lafayette Mayor-elect Erin Easter and Tippecanoe County Commissioner Tom Murtaugh, as well as representatives from Greater Lafayette Commerce and Purdue.
Holcomb called it a chance for an “unfiltered conversation” on a topic that has riled Tippecanoe County and surrounding communities for the past year.
“Certainly, we’ve had administrative involvement up there – and legislative hyper-involvement up there, which is a good thing by the legislative delegation,” Holcomb said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “So, we’ve had eyes and ears on the ground, wide open, dating back weeks and months.”
Holcomb said that he, Bray and Huston agreed last week that “it would be helpful if we all went up and just heard from local leaders.”
By the end of what was, by all accounts, a cordial but pointed conversation, Holcomb and the leaders in each chamber of the General Assembly told local officials that there would be no moves on a pipeline between western Tippecanoe County and Boone County until the Indiana Finance Authority finishes a regional water study in fall 2024.
Bray and Huston promised to hold off on any funding from the General Assembly on a pipeline expected to cost $2 billion until the IFA study was in, along with an independent review.
Holcomb stopped short of calling it a delay on the project or that water from Tippecanoe County wouldn’t wind up as part of a solution to Indiana’s water strategy – as long as data from the IFA and an IEDC-commissioned study by Texas-based consulting firm INTERA showed that pumping from the aquifer along the Wabash River made sense.
And Holcomb remains bullish on the 9,000-acre LEAP district and the “aggressive” work the IEDC is doing to recruit companies to the mega-site near Lebanon.
“The data is going to determine my comfort and acceptance,” Holcomb said about the studies into getting sufficient water to Boone County.
The move dovetails with similar assurances Statehouse leaders gave to state Sen. Spencer Deery, R-West Lafayette, and state Rep. Sharon Negele, R-Attica, in November, as they discussed the protest in their districts and a bill they were crafting to reel in the pipeline concept.
Murtaugh said that getting Holcomb on board with that, too, mattered and gave the community some breathing room, for now.
“That’s all we’ve been asking, is to wait for the science and the data to say this project wasn’t going to harm this community and its natural resources,” Murtaugh said.
Murtaugh said local officials, already wary of a pipeline plan that had been shrouded in secrecy by the quasi-governmental IEDC from the start, got even more antsy this past fall when agency leaders told Greater Lafayette officials that the pipeline was a major semiconductor facility announcement at LEAP away from being fast-tracked. Murtaugh said there was concern that the IEDC would create an Innovation Development District – a relatively new taxing mechanism, similar to a tax-increment finance district – tied to the pipeline to back bonds to build it.
Murtaugh said those comments, in private, by the IEDC got the county commissioners going in earnest a recently passed moratorium on large transfers of water out of the county and a nine-month ban on high-volume radial collector wells.
“That fact that the House and Senate leaders say this will have to go through a General Assembly legislative session, with the sorts of transparency you have there, was something good that came out of this,” Murtaugh said.
Negele and Deery were not in on the conversations Friday at the Purdue Airport. No local lawmaker was. But they said they’d been pushing for this sort of meeting for a while.
“My impression is they are now understanding the depth of the issue and the frustration of citizens,” Negele said.
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Deery added: “The leadership in the legislature hear from me all the time, so the purpose of this was to connect them with county leaders in a setting small enough to have a good exchange of views and concerns.”
Murtaugh said the local group also was told tests on a second site along the Wabash by INTERA – finished Sunday after three days of pumping from a well eight miles downstream from Lafayette – would be its last, as the IFA takes over the water study and expands it to an additional 12 counties. Murtaugh said they were told by IFA officials that the agency had tried to stop last week’s test but that INTERA was too far along in setup to stop.
The IEDC released preliminary test results in September, based on pumping done in early July on a 70-acre site just southeast of Granville Bridge. The IEDC’s report suggested that there was plenty in the Wabash alluvial aquifer to sustain pumping as much as 30 million gallons a day from two wells on that site, with room to grow to as much as 45 million gallons a day.
The news Tuesday was greeted by a still-skeptical public in Tippecanoe County.
Carly Sheets, whose family lives and farms east of both well testing sites in the Granville area, noted that the moves were announced in a pair of press releases Tuesday – one from the governor’s office, the other via Greater Lafayette Commerce. Sheets said she noticed that the governor touted the meeting without being clear about the assurances offered.
Sheets gave kudos to a series of city councils, county commissioners and town boards that passed resolutions protesting the pipeline idea “and helping press pause for a better study to be conducted in a more responsible and transparent manner, with a third party review.”
“I hope more Hoosiers begin paying attention to this major change for Indiana, their water rights and the use of their tax dollars,” Sheets said.
David Sanders, a West Lafayette City Council member who helped start Stop the Water Steal group, said Tuesday’s announcements didn’t get beyond what local residents knew and made “no concession beyond what preexisted from any reasonable timeline for action on the pipeline.”
“Nowhere are addressed the central issues: The woeful lack of transparency and accountability of the IEDC, local control of water resources and the poor planning in siting a potential major water-intensive development project in an area that lacks sufficient water,” Sanders said.
The study results to this point haven’t gone far to ease concerns locally. The IEDC plan has been blasted for being short-sighted, for putting local wells and irrigation systems at risk and for building models dealing with tens of millions of gallons a day on sparse samples and no firm grasp on the aquifer’s recharge rate.
“Does anyone think that, if the IEDC lands a major manufacturer, builds its pipeline, and then discovers they are doing irreparable harm to Tippecanoe County and its residents, that they will then turn off the tap?” asked Noemi Ybarra, part of the Stop the Water Steal group. “No. They will throw more taxpayer money at the problem, buying out the homeowners whose lives and property values have been damaged, and continuing to pump away as much water as they want.”
Gary Lehman, a Purdue trustee, was among those at Friday’s meeting with the governor. At Purdue, President Mung Chiang has been among the biggest champions of what’s been dubbed the “hard tech corridor,” an area that stretches from the West Lafayette campus, through Lebanon and on to Indianapolis, as a place where research powered by Purdue and Purdue grads can flourish.
“Obviously, representing Purdue, what we’ve always wanted is to let the data speak for itself,” Lehman said. “Let’s make sure the data is collected in a transparent way and shared. … That’s something I heard the governor and the Statehouse leaders say they want to do.”
Scott Walker, president and CEO of Greater Lafayette Commerce, was there with Rachel Hazaray, GLC’s board chair.
“We are, as a community, supporting of economic development,” Walker said. “We don’t know for certain that a pipeline from Tippecanoe County to LEAP is a good idea or a bad idea. We just know that we need a thorough analysis of that. That’s been our position all along – there needs to be science used as the evaluation of whether or not that’s a good idea. I feel we’ll get that with the IFA’s process.”
OTHER READS …
In a related note, some of the questions about the IEDC’s work and transparency on LEAP and other development project got pretty salty Tuesday during a State Budget Committee. Indianapolis Business Journal reporter Peter Blanchard had the details about millions in additional land purchases and improvements for unnamed businesses being recruited to the Boone County site, near the split of I-65 and U.S. 52, and other spots in the state. Here’s his report: “State Budget Committee approves OKs nearly $300M in IEDC incentives, LEAP enhancements.”
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