Monday, February 26, 2018

DEP Budget Hearing Highlights Efficiencies, $2.5 Million Proposal To Improve Permit Review Times

DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell told the House Appropriations Committee Monday investments in program efficiency improvements, the proposed $2.5 million initiative to address permit review backlogs and finalizing permit fee increases for key programs will help DEP deal with deficiencies in the state’s environmental protection programs.
In written testimony and in response to questions by Committee members, McDonnell said efforts to replace paper inspection forms with iPad applications in the program to regulate oil and gas operations, moving to e-Permitting and modernizing the handling of the agency’s 35 major grant programs will result in nearly $14.3 million in cost reductions over the next three years that can free up time for agency staff to do other tasks they could not before the efficiencies.
DEP will also soon finalize a fee increase in the Safe Drinking Water program that will fund an additional 33 staff-- 17 of those positions being drinking water system inspectors he said-- to address deficiencies in meeting minimum federal standards for the program.
In addition, there is a $2.5 million initiative in DEP’s budget proposal to hire 33 new people to speed permit reviews and address staff shortages in the Air Quality and high hazard dam program that related to public health and safety.
Several members of the Committee noted DEP’s budget has been cut significantly over the last 10 years resulting in the loss of over 608 positions, including Rep. Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny), Minority Chair of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Mike Carroll (D-Lackawanna), Minority Chair of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, and Rep. Karen Boback (R-Lackawanna).  The agency now has a complement of just over 2,400.
McDonnell also said there is a need to increase permit review fees for the Oil and Gas Program because a decrease in the number of permit applications received by DEP has resulted in the program losing about $500,000 a month in revenue and left the agency with 20 vacant staff positions.
On a related issue, McDonnell said between county conservation districts and DEP 67 inspectors were helping to oversee compliance with erosion and sedimentation and stream crossing permits for the cross-state Sunoco Mariner East II natural gas pipelines.
He also pointed out, the recent $12.6 million penalty assessed against the owners of the pipeline will not eliminate the need for Sunoco to pay to have any water supplies affected by past violations or environmental damage caused by the company corrected.
On issues related to the Susquehanna and Delaware River Basin Commission, McDonnell said the requested increases restores the funding cut last year to Pennsylvania’s fair share funding amount for these interstate and federal commissions.  He said the amount requested is about half of the state’s fair share amount.
McDonnell also highlighted the fact there has been a 26 percent increase in jobs related to the solar energy industry in Pennsylvania and the agency’s Finding Pennsylvania’s Solar Future stakeholders project should provide recommendations on the feasibility of increasing the state’s solar energy goal from .5 percent to 10 percent by 2030 later this year.
In his written testimony, McDonnell noted DEP would like to work with the General Assembly to update the Electronics Waste Recycling Program and provide a stable source of funding for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Program.
Many of the specific issues raised by members of the Committee were the same ones raised at the budget hearing last year.  Here are several that were more unique to this year.
-- Recycling Fund: Rep. Susan Helm (R-Dauphin) asked if DEP is evaluating the Recycling Fund to determine whether the Fund should be eliminated, since $9 million was recently transferred out of the Fund to help balance the state budget.  McDonnell said the Solid Waste and Recycling Fund Advisory Committees are reviewing the Act 101 Recycling Programs to determine what’s working and what isn’t and they expect to make recommendations on improvements later this year.
-- Environmental Justice: In response to a question from Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia), McDonnell said DEP last year completed a series of listening sessions on the Environmental Justice Program and is now working on a revised draft of its Environmental Justice Policy for handling permits within environmental justice communities and on updated maps to show those communities in the state.
Rep. Brad Roae (R-Crawford) asked if there is any value to DEP’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board and in filling the position of Director of the Office of Environmental Justice, if members of the Board do not regularly attend the meetings.  McDonnell said the Office is based on the agency’s obligations related to protecting civil rights.  He noted the program dates back to when it was established by the Ridge Administration under DEP Secretary James Seif.
-- Volkswagen Settlement: Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York), Majority Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said he would like to see a level playing field for rebates under the federal Volkswagen settlement.  Under the settlement, he said states can pay rebates of up to 75 percent for electric vehicles and up to 25 percent for natural gas vehicles.  Given Pennsylvania’s natural gas resources and saying natural gas vehicles like buses are cheaper than electric, the rebates should be similar.  McDonnell said at a hearing on January 25 there are restrictions in the federal settlement on the percentages and for who can get what and said there will be a request for information coming out shortly asking for ideas on projects to fund.  [Note: DEP had a series of listening sessions and comment period on spending the funds starting in May of last year. Click Here for more.]
-- Lyme Disease, West Nile, Zika, Powassan Virus: In response to a question from Rep. Marcia Hahn (R-Northampton) asking for an update on these programs, McDonnell said DEP has been helping to collect some tick samples for the Department of Health related to its investigation of Powassan Virus, which, like Lyme Disease, is carried by ticks.
Click Here for Secretary McDonnell’s budget testimony.
Click Here for copies of testimony and video of House Appropriations Committee budget hearings and the complete hearing schedule.
Related Story:
Budget Testimony By DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell, Improving Efficiency, Customer Service

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