Questions related to the impact of the historic cuts to DEP’s budget, deficiencies in the Safe Drinking Water Program and meeting Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay cleanup obligations dominated the Senate hearing on DEP’s budget Thursday.
Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee for nearly 3 hours answering questions. Here are some of the highlights--
-- Overall Concerns With DEP’s Budget: Sen. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne), Minority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, asked if DEP is facing a staffing crisis because of “historic” budget cuts over the last 10 years. McDonnell said DEP does have challenge with staffing it is attacking at both ends-- to make its processes more efficient and still deliver service and to describe to the public and others what those cuts mean in terms of increased threats to public health.
Sen. Yudichak followed up by asking if increasing fees are enough to make up the gap. McDonnell pointed out increasing fees involves interactions with stakeholders, advisory committees and reviews under the Regulatory Review Act. This whole process takes about 3 years, which means the agency is always working from behind.
Asked if the fees being considered for making up deficiencies with the Safe Drinking Program pointed out by EPA from Sen. Yudichak, McDonnell said he thinks it will be enough to reduce the risk of losing federal primacy.
-- Growing Greener Reboot: Asked by Sen. Yudichak if he had any thoughts on what a Growing Greener III would look like, McDonnell said he is very interested in engaging on how you get to a source of revenue for the program because of the popularity of Growing Greener projects. He said the Chesapeake Bay Program, in particular, is in need of additional resources.
-- Chesapeake Bay Funding: Sen. Yaw asked for details about the $45 million, 3 year program in the budget to deal with water quality and Chesapeake Bay obligations. McDonnell said DEP’s share is about $8.3 million per year that will be used for the installation of farm conservation practices.
In response to a question from Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver) on prioritizing spending available Chesapeake Bay monies, McDonnell said they are developing a system to spend the money where it gets the biggest reductions.
In follow-up questions from Sen. Yaw, McDonnell said the possible federal actions for not meeting Chesapeake Bay requirements include withholding federal funding, which EPA has done in some cases, having EPA oversee individual permit actions and having EPA set its own permit requirements in Pennsylvania.
McDonnell said DEP plans to kick off its Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan update process for the Chesapeake Bay Program in June.
-- MS4 Stormwater Permits/Stormwater: In response to a question from Sen. Mario Scavello (R-Monroe) about MS4 permits and local stormwater fees, McDonnell said Pennsylvania has about 775 communities required to submit MS4 stormwater permits, but he expects about 200 communities to get waivers. He said DEP is encouraging communities to work together to comply with the requirements. He pointed to Lancaster’s initiatives on green infrastructure that not only reduce stormwater and delivers economic and other values for communities as an example of innovation.
-- Safe Drinking Water Program Deficiencies: In response to a question from Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne) about what kinds of violations that EPA said were not being followed up on by DEP in the Safe Drinking Water Program, McDonnell said DEP is going after high risk violations first as a priority, but EPA also pointed out that many of them were monitoring paperwork violations to prove systems comply with the quality standards that are also important.
-- Lead In Drinking Water Contamination: In response to a question from Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia), Minority Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, about childhood lead exposure that is primarily caused by lead paint, McDonnell said it is a critical health issue. With respect to DEP programs, the agency regulates lead in drinking water which triggers a series of actions by the water suppliers.
He said lead in drinking water is different from other contaminants because most often lead comes from individual service lines and inside the home plumbing. Part of the response is to educate homeowners and others on how to deal with these issues as well as local initiatives to replace individual service lines where there are lead issues. He noted there is no state program looking at lead ingestion issues from lead paint, in particular.
In response to a question from Sen. Yudichak, McDonnell said he would be happy to serve on a lead task force created in a proposal from the Senator.
-- Private Water Well Standards: McDonnell said DEP would support setting private water well construction standards, in response to a question from Sen. Baker who pointed out Pennsylvania does not have those standards now.
-- Expiration of Federal Mine Reclamation Fee: In response to a question from Sen. Yudichak, McDonnell said Pennsylvania still has a lot of unreclaimed mine sites to address, unlike some states getting the federal reclamation money. He expressed the hope the federal government would extend the RECLAIM program to reclaim mines with local economic development benefits and pass a federal law to authorize the program in statute. McDonnell said efforts are already underway to encouraging reauthoring the federal reclamation fee due to expire in 2021.
-- Erosion & Sediment Permitting Delays: Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee asked why does it take 200 days for E&S permit reviews in Southwestern PA and 30 to 45 days in other parts of Pennsylvania? McDonnell said there have been challenges dealing with both budget cuts and inadequate training staff given budget constraints as well as staff reductions in meeting permit review times. He said DEP is addressing the issue with additional training, dialog with consultants to improve the completeness of applications and through improving permit coordination within the agency.
McDonnell said DEP is working to include erosion and sedimentation permits in its ePermitting initiative. ePermitting generally will help reduce the number of incomplete permit applications received by the agency because it requires consultants to fill in the permit application correctly.
Although not said, this comment was related to the Oil and Gas Program which has recently documented the fact 60 percent of the E&S permit applications received for this program were incomplete or had deficiencies.
In response to a question by Sen. David Argall (R-Schuylkill), McDonnell said DEP is looking at a simplified permit process for erosion and sedimentation permits for low risk, 1 to 3 acre projects.
-- 3rd Party Permit Reviews: Sen. Yaw also asked about using outside consultants to review permits, McDonnell said there are legal and other issues related to third party reviews. With respect to using relying on an engineer’s seal to expedite reviews, McDonnell said applications are still coming in wrong, even with engineers.
Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster) followed up on this question by asking if DEP uses contractors to perform some of its duties. McDonnell said there are programs, like storage tanks, that relies on certified installers and inspectors to assure tanks are installed and monitored correctly.
-- Pipeline Permit Reviews: In response to a question about what DEP is doing differently with respect to pipeline permit reviews by Sen. Yaw, McDonnell said DEP has created a Regional Permit Coordination Office to handle linear projects, like pipelines, that require coordination between offices to speed the process.
-- Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act: Sen. Bob Mensch (R-Montgomery) said there have been tremendous benefits from the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund and a real problem in funding it and even expanding it. McDonnell said because the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax was eliminated and the $40 million that went with it, there have to be other ways of funding the problem.
[The Governor’s budget proposal would provide funding for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund by taking funding from the Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) Fund, transferring that money to DCNR’s Oil and Gas Fund and then to HASCA. The Governor proposed backfilling the transfer from the Growing Greener Fund for 3 years by floating a bond issue.]
-- Electronic Waste Recycling: In response to a question from Sen. Mensch (R-Montgomery) said there are problems in recycling electronics, particularly CRT monitors, in the Southeast. McDonnell said it is no secret there are problems with the electronics recycling law. DEP would like to see fixed, in particular, the disparity over using weight as a way of measuring what device manufacturers pay for.
-- Preventing the Dumping Of Recycled Materials/Recycling Fee Expiration: Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Allegheny) noted markets for glass in particular are bad and glass is being dumped in landfills rather than being recycled and asked what DEP is doing to address the issues. McDonnell said they are working with the Recycling Markets Development Center to find solutions to the issue and want to bring back recommendations on the issue. He pointed out the $2/ton recycling fee is due to expire in 2020, but DEP has already had to stop offering new recycling grant rounds because of its expiration.
In response to a question from Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna), McDonnell said it is probably past time to revisit the Act 101 recycling act since it’s been 29 years since it was enacted in 1988.
Sen. Scott Wagner (R-York) expressed concerns about communities not having organized waste pickup programs and about the amount of litter along Pennsylvania’s roadsides that he would appreciate a conversation about. McDonnell agreed.
-- Waste Tire Pile Removal: McDonnell said the program has cleaned up over 36 million waste tires over the last 20 years and after the cleanup projects scheduled for this summer are completed there will be only two major waste tire piles left with about 700,000 tires.
-- Waste Coal Power Plant Tax Credit: McDonnell said he has been a big supporter of the waste coal-fired power plants because they have so many environmental benefits and without them taxpayer dollars would have to used for coal waste pile cleanup.
-- Incentives For Electric Vehicles: In response to a question from Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia), McDonnell said Pennsylvania has a unique opportunity with the national Volkswagen settlement which will allocate about $118 million to the state to encourage the use of electric and other clean fuel vehicles.
-- Federal Waters Of The U.S. Rule: In response to a question from Sen. Judith Schwank (D-Berks) McDonnell said the possible rescission of EPA’s Waters of the U.S. Rule will not make much difference in Pennsylvania because of the legal framework the state already has. It would probably affect federal agencies operating in the state.
-- New Federal Policy On Climate Change: In response to a question from Sen. Hughes about the changing federal policy on climate change, McDonnell said climate change is real. DEP had a study done that showed significant impacts on Pennsylvania over the next 50 years. The good news is, McDonnell said, the kinds of things done to address climate change, like energy conservation, save money and have other real benefits. McDonnell said they key things for him is to manage the impacts that are in front of us. He noted Pennsylvania does have a good framework to deal with climate issues in Act 70.
-- Methane Emission Standards For Oil & Gas: In response to a questions from Sen. Yaw, McDonnell said DEP’s authority for setting methane emission limits on the oil and gas industry is in the state Air Pollution Control Act which directs DEP to adopt federal standards. He said EPA did adopt a emission standard for methane. He explained DEP is proposing changes to the existing General Permit setting methane limits to implement the standard. Adoption of a general permit is authorized by the state act.
In a follow up question, McDonnell said DEP did not look at other sectors because either EPA has not adopted a standard for those areas or, like in the case of landfill methane, Pennsylvania’s requirements are actually more stringent than federal requirements.
Sen. Wagner asked why the landfill methane requirements were more stringent than federal requirements, McDonnell said DEP does a case-by-case analysis of the requirements based on statutory authority and the latest research.
[Note: With respect to the landfill methane requirements, there were a number of landfill methane events, including at least one home that exploded, due to landfill methane migration. Pennsylvania pioneered methane control requirements at landfills to prevent incidents like this in the future.]
-- Small High Hazard Dams: Sen. Baker (R-Luzerne) asked if there is anything being done to assist private high hazard dams owners dealing with their issues other than breaching. McDonnell said, and the Senator agreed, there is a public safety concern involved with the dams, but DEP does not have a pot of money to deal with those issues.
Click Here for a summary of DEP’s written budget testimony. Visit the Senate Appropriations Committee webpage to watch a video of the Senate Budget hearing.
Click Here to view a video of the February 27 House budget hearing.
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