Thursday, August 24, 2017

What DEP Said Before About 3rd Party Permit Reviews, Speeding Up Permitting

With the discussion of proposals in the Senate-passed budget bills on how to speed up DEP permit reviews now front and center, it is worth a look-back to see what DEP has told the Senate and House this year about speeding up permit reviews.
Incomplete Applications
John Stefanko, then DEP Executive Deputy for Programs, told the Senate Transportation Committee on February 9 one of the keys to improving turnaround times for environmental permits for PennDOT projects (or any permit reviews) is to get complete applications in the door.
DEP has found in its own reviews of permit programs sometimes up to 60 percent of the applications coming in the door for review are either incomplete or have deficiencies which significantly delays permit review times.
DEP receives an average of about 30,000 permit applications to review every year across its programs.
Budget/Staff Cuts
Stefanko, like every recent DEP Secretary regardless of party affiliation, also acknowledged that significant cuts to DEP’s budget over the last decade and the resulting 25 percent cut in staff also has had a big impact on permit review times at the agency.
3rd Party Permit Reviews
With respect to the suggestion of having third party reviews of permit applications, Stefanko told the Transportation Committee 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.
DEP Permit Reform Initiatives Underway
At his May 15 Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary McDonnell summarized his approach to dealing with the challenges at DEP--
“Over my almost 20 years in state government, I’ve had the chance to see almost every aspect of our agency.  From our policy making and regulatory functions to our budget and human resources apparatus.
“Through it all I prided myself on being open to collaboration, being honest about problems and listen to all perspectives to help my colleagues make meaningful decisions.
“It is no secret the Department faces challenges.  Over the past year we’ve continued to address those issues.
“We are modernizing and improving our permitting processes, collaboratively addressing the Commonwealth’s Chesapeake Bay obligations, and we’ve created an e-permitting platform and e-inspection app to improve our partnerships with the regulated community and increase our transparency.
“We’ve refocused on engaging with stakeholders to identify problems and solutions and we’ve begun investing in the most critical asset we have in the Department, our people.”
Among the reform measures DEP has underway are--
-- Listening Sessions To Hear About Issues From Consultants, Permittees: DEP completed a series of 7 regional listening sessions with consultants and permit applications early in the year to learn what DEP is doing right and wrong with its basic Chapter 102 erosion and sedimentation control and NPDES water quality permitting process.  The results of that process and recommended changes will be ready to release in mid to late June.  (Click Here for more.)
-- New General Permit For Low-Impact Projects Of 5 Acres Or Less Instead Of Full Permit: One result of the listening sessions is already being started-- developing a new General Permit for Chapter 102 erosion and sedimentation control permits for low impact projects like projects on farms, instead of a full permit. DEP’s workload evaluation found as many as 40 to 50 percent of the projects DEP now requires full permits for are projects of 5 acres or less. (Click Here for more.)
-- Shifting Permit Work Between Regions: DEP has a pilot project underway to shift some of the erosion and sedimentation permit work for oil and gas operations from the Southwest Regional Office to the Northcentral Office to speed permit reviews.
-- ePermitting Platform: Secretary McDonnell told both the Senate and House Appropriations Committees in March DEP’s new ePermitting platform has already reduced the modules required for mining permits by 20 percent.  Since the system requires correct, step-by-step input of information, it also reduces errors and deficiencies in applications submitted significantly.  This is potentially huge because up to 60 of many of the 30,000 permit applications DEP receives contain errors or other deficiencies.  He said DEP would be expanding the system to erosion and sediment permits next.  (Click Here for more.)
-- Electronic Documents System: Secretary McDonnell told both the Senate and House Appropriations Committees in his budget testimony in March DEP has already taken the first steps toward an agency-wide electronic documents management system that will speed submissions to the agency and make the agency more transparent to the public by giving better access to documents without taking staff time for document reviews.  (Click Here for more.)
-- Regional Permit Coordination Office: Secretary McDonnell told both the Senate and House Appropriations Committees in March he formed a special Regional Permit Coordination Office to better coordinate the handling of pipeline and other projects that cross DEP regional office boundaries
-- Electronic Field Inspection Reports: Secretary McDonnell told both the Senate and House Appropriations Committees in his budget testimony in March DEP has now equipped its Oil and Gas Program inspectors with iPads to fill out inspection reports electronically and submit them to agency databases making staff much more efficient and effect.  Previously staff worked with paper and had to recopy field notes into a database at the office. He said he hopes to expand the initiative to other programs.  (Click Here for more.)
Click Here for a copy of Stefanko’s written testimony.  Click Here to watch a video of the Senate Transportation Committee hearing.
Related Stories:

No comments :

Post a Comment

Subscribe To Receive Updates:

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner