Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Analysis: Senate Panel Ignores Obvious: Deep Cuts In DEP Budget, Staff Equals Reduced Service, Less Protection

The Senate Republican and Democratic Policy Committees Monday held a hearing on whether DEP’s ability to process permits has had an impact on economic development in Pennsylvania.  There is no question the answer is yes, to some extent, but the cause of DEP’s slowdown in processing permits was in doubt to some on the panel.
Republican members of the panel didn’t seem to get a simple concept: if you cut DEP’s General Fund budget by more than 40 percent over the last 13 years, cut DEP’s staff by 22 percent (including the recent freeze on hiring by Gov. Wolf), yet do not reduce its responsibilities, but increase them, there will be an impact.
If DEP was a private business, perhaps some panel members would get it.  
You can’t cut a business’ income by nearly half and prevent the filling of 22 percent of its employee positions and NOT expect that business to close plants and cut lines of business.
Except, a public agency like DEP can’t close its offices or decide which environmental laws NOT to enforce because the General Assembly gives them all those jobs to do and NONE of those responsibilities have been taken away from DEP.
The General Assembly has only piled on MORE responsibilities without the necessary funding to support them over the last 13 years.
StateImpact reported Monday the Chair of Senate Republican Policy Committee Sen. David Argall (R-Schuylkill) made the statement, “How can we be sure if we allocate additional dollars for additional staff the situation improve?  You certainly understand the fear that more staff equals more bureaucracy, which equals more delay, not less.”
To help debunk that myth, DEP Secretary John Quigley noted data from DEP’s Permit Decision Guarantee Program shows the agency meets its deadlines for review of permits 89 percent of the time, but he pointed out DEP must get complete permit applications from applicants to make those deadlines.
He described a recent study of Chapter 102 (erosion and sedimentation) and 105 (water obstruction) permit applications, the basic permits needed for development, that found 39.4 percent had technical deficiencies or were incomplete.
Meeting permit review deadlines, Quigley said, is a shared responsibility with applicants and nearly 40 percent of the time, on key water permits, they fail to submit complete applications the agency can process immediately.
“Application review is not a box-checking exercise. It involves scientific, technical, engineering, and legal analysis,” said Quigley.  “Applications that are deficient - that do not meet all of the regulatory requirements for completeness and technical accuracy - simply take longer to review. In many cases, review of these applications requires multiple efforts by the consultant to add information to the application to satisfy regulatory requirements for environmental protection. This back and forth can add considerable time to the review process.”
Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-Washington) expressed concern about “over-regulation,” and “why it takes so much longer to get permits for just about anything from [DEP’s] Southwest office.”
She suggested hiring outside firms to review permits, perhaps forgetting momentarily that that costs the state money and that any consulting firm doing those review would face significant conflict of interest requirements that would prevent them from working in DEP permit programs.
DEP’s Quigley strongly disagreed with the idea saying, “We have the most proficient, technically capable staff that you’ll find anywhere.  The protection of public health and the environment is not something you can outsource.”
Quigley pointed to a proposal in Gov. Wolf’s FY 2016-17 budget that would increase investment in DEP’s information technology infrastructure to upgrade the agency’s eFACTS permit management system and allow DEP to implement more e-permitting processes within mining and other programs.
Asked if he thought Pennsylvania’s regulatory environment was hurting job growth and economic development, Quigley said he disagrees.
First, the natural resources that need protecting in Pennsylvania are “worthy of enhanced p protection, to say nothing of public health,” he noted.
Further, he noted there are areas where regulations are not strong enough, including those pertaining to natural gas.
“If Pennsylvania is to join a race to the bottom, it does so at its own risk,” Quigley said.  It is too easy to blame the regulatory environment when other factors are in play as well.
At the same time, Quigley said he has been working to streamline and improve the permit review processes and is open to suggestions for how to do that in ways that do not compromise protecting the environment.
He said just last week DEP restarted a program to improve statewide consistency in inspections and enforcement that addresses a key issue with many in the regulated community.
A copy of Secretary Quigley’s written testimony is available online.
Perhaps at some point, legislators will stop overlooking the 800-pound gorilla in the room-- adequate funding for Pennsylvania’s environmental programs.
Click Here to watch the hearing online and for copies of available written testimony.
Senate Panel Weighs DEP Budget Cuts, Slow DEP Permit Review Process
DEP Tells House Committees Chesapeake Bay Program Faces Inadequate Resources, Data
What’s In Gov. Wolf’s New Budget For The Environment?  Not Much

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