By David E. Hess, Former Secretary, Department of Environmental Protection
Everyone agrees-- the Growing Greener Program-- a national model created in 1999 to protect the environment while growing business at the local level-- is the most effective environmental program ever adopted by the Commonwealth. It empowered tens of thousands of people all across the state to be directly involved in the restoration and protection of the environment in their own communities.
They restored their watersheds, reclaimed abandoned mines, preserved local farms and open space, improved recreation opportunities and upgraded drinking water and wastewater infrastructure.
For every dollar Growing Greener provided, local watershed groups contributed $1.25 or more, doubling the investment made by the state.Growing Greener gave people the tools to make these projects happen. I saw it first-hand when I was Secretary and visited every one of Pennsylvania's 67 counties twice to see these local projects.
No nameless, faceless bureaucracy came in to their communities to do a project and leave. They did it locally by building partnerships and contributing their talents to make a lasting, positive impact on their environment.
So, if everyone loves Growing Greener, why is it broke?
The Growing Greener II bond issue, which capped the program in 2005, is out of money. Fees from the disposal of municipal waste in Pennsylvania, which were meant to provide a steady stream of funding for Growing Greener, now almost all go to pay debt service for these bonds.
Funding has dropped by over 82 percent, from $100 million in 2002-03 to just $27.4 million for project funding next year, now split between five agencies.
Legislators from both parties in both the House and Senate have proposed fees or a severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production to fund Growing Greener at one level or another.
President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) has proposed an impact fee on Marcellus Shale drilling, Senators John Yudichak (D-Luzerne) and Ted Erickson (R-Delaware), Rep. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery), Rep. Marguerite Quinn (R-Bucks), Rep. Mike Tobash (R-Schuylkill), Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R-Delaware) and Rep. Camille George (D-Clearfield) have all proposed different versions of a Marcellus Shale production severance tax to fund programs, including Growing Greener.
There is a proposal by Sen. Don White (R-Indiana) to use the proceeds from Marcellus Shale leases and the development of minerals on lands owned by state agencies other than the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to fund Growing Greener.
The royalties from the development of existing State Forest land Marcellus Shale leases will increase from $64 million next year to an estimated $300 million in the next 10 years which could also support Growing Greener-type projects.
There have also been proposals to make natural gas mineral holdings taxable, like coal, to offset local costs imposed by drilling, including local environmental improvement projects.
By my count that's at least five different options, with variations on each, that could be used together or separately to fund Growing Greener-type projects.
Pennsylvania still has 16,000 miles of polluted streams, 189,000 acres of abandoned mine lands needing reclamation, 110,000 acres of farmland and open space disappearing every year and federal mandates to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and control farmland and stormwater runoff in the two-thirds of Pennsylvania in the Chesapeake Bay.
Clearly, the need is there and Growing Greener should be refocused on these core responsibilities. So, what are we waiting for?
The General Assembly has less than 12 voting days to act before the June 30 deadline for a new budget and there is every indication the Governor, Senate and House want an on-time budget.
For the last eight years, over $1.3 billion in environmental funding has been diverted to balance the state budget or given to programs that could not get funding on their own. $1.3 billion.
Environmental leadership is not about who can cut the least, it's about funding effective programs that give people the tools they need to restore and protect the environment where they live.
Growing Greener, which won multiple national and state awards, has been that program in Pennsylvania.
The General Assembly and the Governor need to act now to support this amazing program.For more information, visit the Renew Growing Greener website.
David E. Hess served as Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection from 2001 to 2003 under Governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker. He has been involved in state environmental issues professionally for over 32 years and helped guide the response in the Quecreek Mine Rescue and the crash of Flight 93 in Somerset County. He can be contacted by sending email to: DHess@CrisciAssociates.com.