John Stefanko, DEP Executive Deputy for Programs, told the Senate Transportation Committee Wednesday the keys to improving turnaround times for environmental permits for PennDOT projects (or any permit reviews) is to get complete applications in the door and to give DEP more staff.
The comments were made at a hearing on improving transportation project delivery.
Stefanko explained that under a memorandum of agreement with PennDOT, DEP dedicates 13 staff to environmental permit reviews for transportation projects.
Stefanko said the most significant cause of permit review delays is deficient applications. The average time for permit reviews for complete applications without deficiencies is 45 days. However, when an application has deficiencies, the review time more than doubles to 94 days.
He did note no permit delays on DEP’s part have caused PennDOT to miss a contract let date for a project.
The second cause of permit delays is too few staff.
Stefanko said DEP is almost ready to roll out an e-permitting system for the mining program, which is likely to happen next week, that should help in cutting review times. DEP is also working on methods to assist applicants in preparing good applications.
“The Department is currently holding listening sessions for the public, including private sector consultants, and will be taking action on many of the ideas gathered during those sessions,” said Stefanko. “We anticipate that a large number of necessary changes will be rolled out in 2017.”
Third Party Permit Reviews
With respect to the suggestion of having third party reviews of permit applications, Stefanko said there are a number of significant concerns with that approach, not the least of which is the statutory requirements requiring DEP make its own independent determination when taking permit actions.
“Only the Commonwealth has constitutional obligations to the public and our natural environment,” said Stefanko. “Absent direct supervisory oversight and Commonwealth parallel review, the quality of review and application of constitutional, statutory and regulatory requirements is difficult to control. Sufficient QA/QC requires time and personnel, likely eliminating any cost benefits and time savings assumed by the third party review structure.”
He noted third party reviews would required DEP to providing training of third party reviewers by the Department.
“The Department has made staff training a priority. This is a complex and time consuming activity. It will take a great deal of time, effort and energy to insure that the third party reviewers are properly trained and understand Department regulations and guidance,” explained Stefanko. “This time effort and energy would be better spent by enhancing Department staff capabilities to deliver training to both Department and County Conservation District staff.”
Stefanko also pointed out, during an appeal of a permit approved under a third party review, that third party would be required to defend its actions before the Environmental Hearing Board and Commonwealth Court.
The third party reviewer would not defend its reviews for free and impose additional costs on the agency. The third party could also be responsible for attorney’s fees and other costs if they lose.
He also said there is a significant concern over potential conflicts of interest and ethics with third party contractors.
Copies of other testimony presented at the hearing are available online.Sen. John Rafferty (R-Montgomery) serves as Majority Chair of the Committee and can be contacted by sending email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Sen. John Sabatina (D-Philadelphia) serves as Minority Chair and can be contacted by sending email to: email@example.com.