Friday, May 27, 2016

Analysis: 10 Opportunities To Make Pennsylvania An Environmental Leader Again

While many people are caught up in the soap opera of the latest change in DEP Secretaries, few are focused on the real issue-- how to make Pennsylvania a leader again in protecting and restoring the environment.
Pennsylvania’s Air Pollution Control Act, surface mine reclamation, brownfields, waste management, radiation protection, deep mine safety and Growing Greener programs have all been models other states, the federal government  and even other countries have adopted.
The eFACTS permit information system led other states and EPA to use technology to not only manage programs, but share compliance and other information with the public.
DEP used to win awards for its public participation and environmental education efforts.
The real issue is what steps are we taking to confront and solve the issues we now face?  
10 Issues/10 Opportunities For Leadership
The issues are many and critical, but not unsolvable with the right kind of Executive and Legislative leadership.
Here are 10 issues that present 10 opportunities for leadership and creative problem solving--
-- Budget/Staff: Since FY 2002-03 DEP has seen its General Fund support cut by more than 40 percent and it has lost over 20 percent of its staff positions.  While DEP’s General Fund budget has gone up in the last few years, those funds represent essentially a cost-to-carry budget as state personnel costs increase.
The FY 2015-16 budget was the 13th year in a row DEP’s budget has been cut.
Anyone who doesn’t think this hasn’t led to a reduction in service to permittees and in DEP’s ability to protect public health and the environment isn’t living in the real world.
And yet, through it all, DEP’s overburdened staff still makes its Permit Decision Guarantee deadlines 89 percent of the time.
Federal agencies have warned Pennsylvania the Air Quality, Drinking Water, Surface Mining and Water Quality programs are dangerously under-resourced and are not meeting minimum standards to continue delegation if steps aren’t taken.
DEP Secretaries from McGinty to Quigley, and from both parties, kept warning about the impact of these constant cuts, but nothing has been done and it keeps getting worse.
Reversing this trend is not only needed, it’s necessary.
-- Information Technology: The backbone of any modern business and agency is its IT capacity.  Without it, initiatives like online permitting to reduce staffing costs, online reporting by permittees and sharing information with the public they have a right to know can’t been done.  
The eFACTS system,  DEP’s basic permit management and information sharing system, is nearly 20 years old and can’t be updated.
Modest proposals have been made to improve DEP’s IT capacity, but none adopted.
-- Meeting Clean Water Obligations: Pennsylvania has 19,000 miles of polluted streams and rivers that don’t meet state or federal clean water standards.  
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said just this week Pennsylvania is far behind in meeting its own commitments to cleaning up streams contributing water to the Chesapeake Bay.  
There have been no credible proposals for dealing with these obligations from successive Governors or the General Assembly.
This is one of the biggest opportunities for environmental leadership Pennsylvania has.
Rep. Garth Everett (R-Lycoming) wants to study one new idea on how to support water quality cleanup in a targeted way.
-- Adequate Review Of Natural Gas Pipeline Impacts: In the next 10 years DEP expects 30,000 more miles of natural gas pipelines to be built.  
In February the Governor’s Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force made 184 recommendations-- some good, some weak-- for dealing more effectively with the environmental impacts and public safety issues from all this development.  
Who will implement these recommendations and when?  Will the relevant agencies have the resources to carry them out?   Good questions.
-- Updating Conventional/Unconventional Drilling Regulations: DEP’s requirements covering conventional and unconventional oil and gas drilling operations need to be updated, yet the General Assembly is on the verge of killing DEP’s final Chapter 78 and 78a regulations.  
This issue needs to be resolved without rolling back environmental protection and giving away the store.
-- Preventing Coal Industry Bankruptcies From Increasing Taxpayer Reclamation Liabilities:  The coal industry is facing difficult times.  Bankruptcies are increasing.  The likelihood of taxpayers again being stuck with the cost of reclaiming mine lands and permanently treating any mine discharges is increasing.  
Bills are now being introduced in the General Assembly-- like House Bill 1967 (Gabler-R-Clearfield)-- to make it easier for coal operators to walk away from their operations.  
Are DEP’s land reclamation financial guarantees up-to-date?   Do they cover all the costs they need to, if there is another wave of coal company bankruptcies?
This has happened before and taxpayers got stuck.  These are critical questions that need answers.
-- Preventing Impacts From Underground Coal Mining: In addition to natural gas drilling and pipelines, underground coal mining is still having a major impact on surface and groundwater and causing damage to surface structures.  
It’s been more than a year since the last Act 54 report on the impacts of underground mining found 40 percent of streams undermined by deep coal mining show adverse impacts and an unacceptable number have never recovered from those impacts.  
DEP’s Citizens Advisory Council made a number of recommendations for following up on the findings in the report, but there has been very little from DEP on what will actually change in response.
The Act 54 report and the Council’s recommendations need real answers.
-- Updating Onlot Septic System Regulations: For at least the last 6 years DEP has been urged by many groups, including DEP’s Citizens Advisory Council, to update the agency’s regulations covering the construction and management of onlot septic systems.
These regulations determine how and where homes not connected to municipal sewer systems are built, which covers a lot of Pennsylvania.
DEP’s Sewage Advisory Committee, which is supposed to be involved in the process, has been marginalized, only meeting once in 2015 and so far just twice this year.
This is a classic example of how budget and staff cuts have hamstrung DEP’s water quality programs, and on how not to deal with an advisory committee.
While some progress is being made, it needs to be brought to a successful conclusion.
-- Improving Public Participation: In November of 2014, DEP’s Citizens Advisory Council adopted a series of recommendations on how to improve DEP’s interaction with and management of the agency’s 22 advisory committees.  
Overall, advisory committees reported a positive experience with DEP, but there were significant differences in how DEP staff dealt with certain committees.
One goal of the Council recommendations was to help the agency identify issues so it could update its 1998 Advisory Committee Guidance which governs interactions with the advisory groups.
That 1998 guidance has not been updated.  Although DEP has made some adjustments to the way it interacts with advisory committees, clearly there have been failures.
DEP should relook at the Council’s recommendations and the 1998 policy to see where they can improve.
-- Don’t Continue To Ignore The Obvious: Pennsylvania has been and continues to be a leader in producing electricity, in energy efficiency and in developing clean sources of energy, but the way we produce and use electricity is changing rapidly.
These changes present significant opportunities for business investment in Pennsylvania and can be an important economic driver and job creator
Cheap natural gas, in particular, is replacing coal by action of the market place.
Truth be told, Pennsylvania won’t even have to stretch to meet EPA Clean Power Climate Plan requirements, because natural gas is replacing coal at such a rapid rate in power generation.  
Attempts to forestall these changes are like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike looking up at a 100 foot tsunami wave.
No one has begun a serious discussion of how Pennsylvania can benefit from these changes.  Folks have been too busy trying to defend their own piece of a pie that is shrinking.
Wouldn’t it be helpful if someone called a Summit on Pennsylvania’s Energy Future to look at some of these key issues--
-- How to take full economic advantage of the change from coal to gas.  (You can do this without hurting coal.);
-- How to encourage energy efficiency to further reduce energy demand to boost the competitive position of Pennsylvania businesses;
-- What public policies can we adopt to promote sustainable practices without respect to where the energy comes from; and
-- How to deal with the economic dislocation caused by ALL these changes. With thousands of coal miners being put out of work, no one has thought to create special programs to help them?  No wonder they feel abandoned.
This is all about leadership.  About being focused on how to make Pennsylvania an environmental leader again.
Having six Secretaries in six years has hurt DEP significantly.  Thirteen years of budget cuts and 20 percent staff cuts have hurt more.
Why don’t we focus on being leaders and not on how to roll back the environmental protections we have?
We have a choice and have made choices on all these issues, just many wrong ones.
We can stand and look at the wave or go surfing.
I’d rather go surfing.
Editor: Former DEP Secretary David E. Hess

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