Friday, March 1, 2019

Republican Chair Of Appropriations Committee: The Way We Fund Our Environmental Protection Programs Is Not Sustainable

On February 28, Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh), Majority Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said at the conclusion of the hearing on DEP’s budget that the way the Commonwealth funds its environmental protection programs is “not sustainable” and “not having predictability in environmental protection is a dangerous thing.”
“One comment is a concern in regards to the investment of this Commonwealth towards environmental protection is the financial model that is part of this is not sustainable,” said Sen. Browne.  
“If you look at the interrelationships among the funds being used to fund our environmental operations... there’s a lot of correlation between them, each one of them exposing the other,” explained Sen. Browne.  “That needs to be factored into our conversation going forward.
“I know this concerns you [Secretary Patrick McDonnell] as well. Not having predictability in environmental protection is a dangerous thing,” said Sen. Browne.  “It’s what we have available now based on the revenue capacity of the Commonwealth, but going forward there will need to be a serious conversation about how we fund these very important operations.”
Significant concerns were expressed by both Republican and Democratic members about Gov. Wolf’s proposed transfers from the Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) Fund, Keystone Recreation, Parks and Conservation Fund and Recycling Fund to pay agency operating expenses.
Secretary Pat McDonnell repeated his goal of making sure the remaining monies coming from these funds supported community projects at the same levels as before and if they did not he said there was a commitment to review the status of the funds.
He also said the proposed Restore Pennsylvania initiative would provide project funding for projects now funded by the Environmental Stewardship and Keystone funds.
There was also bipartisan concern over funding shortfalls being experienced in the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund that will be bankrupt by 2022 in the face of significant new cleanup challenges like PFAS contamination.
McDonnell said he shared the concerns about future funding for the Hazardous Sites Fund and said he looked forward to working with the General Assembly on a solution.
With respect to other questions, the Senate hearing covered much the same ground as the House did.  Questions on issues like-- concerns about DEP staffing levels, progress on Chesapeake Bay Watershed cleanup obligation, timeliness of permit reviews and differences between DEP Regions. Click Here for a summary of the House hearing.
Here’s a quick summary of additional questions asked in the Senate hearing--
-- Status Of Drilling Ban In Susquehanna County: Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, asked about the allowing drilling again in a 3 square mile box DEP drew in 2010 around Dimock in Susquehanna County because of the severe natural gas migration issues contaminating drinking water wells from a Shale gas well drilled by Cabot Oil.  He said property owners are anxious to allow gas well development their properties. Adding, it is not fair to prohibit drilling when that’s one of the most productive area of the state.  McDonnell said DEP recently advised property owners and Cabot Oil of their status with respect to drilling and where their properties stand and created a pathway to potentially allow drilling.  Testing has shown 6 properties have been cleared with respect to methane levels in their water, 7 others will required additional ongoing testing and DEP has been in touch with Cabot Oil on that, and 5 have not allowed DEP access to their properties so they are considered resolved. He added in 2017 additional gas migration issues came up in the area and Cabot Oil has been cooperative in helping to resolve them.
-- Stormwater Pollution Reduction: Sen. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne), Minority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said communities in his area have been tackling the problem of reducing stormwater pollution.  He pointed to the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority which has taken on the responsibility for a regional stormwater plan covering more than 30 municipalities.  Using this approach will reduce costs by an estimated 50 percent, but, he said, there is still a significant cost involved.  He noted the Restore Pennsylvania proposal that he and Sen. Tom Killion (R-Delaware) have sponsored will help meet some of those obligations, but asked if there any other funding available now.  McDonnell there are funds available under Growing Greener to support a variety of projects with flood and stormwater pollution reduction benefits. He said, however, the Restore Pennsylvania is the only proposal that does address these problems on the scale they need to be addressed.
-- Environmental Stewardship Fund Transfer To Pay Operating Costs: Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna) noted the $4 waste fee supporting the Environmental Stewardship Fund has not been raised since it was adopted in 2002 and asked if the proposed fund transfer to pay DEP operating costs is sustainable.  McDonnell said he does not believe there will be a change in the amount of project money going out the door. He said he would like to have the conversation on future funding opportunities, but Restore Pennsylvania proposal could help address those project funding needs.
Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) later asked what the demand is these programs and will there be enough money to fund all the applications.  McDonnell said DEP gets twice as many applications as they can fund in any given year.
-- Transferring Conservation District Funding To Environmental Stewardship Fund: Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Butler), Majority Chair of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, expressed a concerned about moving conservation district and State Conservation Commission funding to the Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) Fund.  McDonnell said it was done to help ensure a no tax increase budget. Adding, the Governor’s Office has said they would revisit the issue if it became a problem.
-- Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund Bankrupt: Sen. Stephen Santesario (D-Bucks) said the figures he’s seen show the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund will be in the red by 2022. He expressed a significant concern with the lack of funding, in particular when issues like PFAS contamination and the need for water filtration are just developing.
Sen. Bob Mensch (R-Montgomery) noted funding for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Program went away with the phase out of the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax and asked how we fund it now, because it has been a real benefit to his district. McDonnell said it was a $45 million program to fund our share of federal Superfund, state hazardous sites cleanups, cleaning up brownfields, emergency response and other activities.  DEP is now seeing about $23 million a year which does not fund all of DEP’s obligations. He said we need to be working on a new funding source now because you can’t stop cleanup project halfway through.
-- PFAS Contamination: Sen. Maria Collett (D-Bucks) asked about the PFAS testing initiative in DEP’s budget. McDonnell said the budget request is related to testing in DEP’s laboratory and supporting an additional person.  He said DEP should have a PFAS monitoring plan out in the next month or so, that will expand beyond the 6 percent of water companies covered in the existing plan. He said there are more than 3,000 PFAS and PFOA chemicals the plan will  to include those. He also said DEP will be issuing an RFP for a toxicology services to help develop a Maximum Contaminant Level in drinking water for PFAS contaminants. The MCL would have to be done by a regulation in addition it would need documentation on the extent of the problem and other supporting data. In response to a follow up question, McDonnell said they are looking at a standard for PFAS and PFOA.
Asked about DEP’s relationship with federal agencies on PFAS contamination issues,  McDonnell said there were problems early on with reporting and coordination, but that has improved. EPA does have a lead on military-related contamination sites because it is a federal site, but DEP’s Hazardous Sites Cleanup Program staff have been engaged.
-- Using Recycling Fund To Pay DEP Operating Costs: Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Butler) expressed a concern about moving $10 million from the Recycling Fund to pay DEP operating costs.  McDonnell said they are committed to giving the same level support to recycling programs as they have in the past. He added later in response to a similar question from Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) DEP typically does about $15 million in grants to support local recycling programa, but they are looking to do $30 million because money has held back in the Fund during the debate over whether the $2 Recycling Fee was going to be renewed in late 2017.
In response to a question from Sen. Browne (R-Lehigh) about whether changes need to be made in the recycling law to allow the transfer to take place, McDonnell said yes.  He raised the same concern as the proposal was being discussed, adding it would need to be handled during the budget adoption process.
-- Recycling Markets/E-Waste Recycling: Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna) said markets for recycled materials have dropped since China has changed it policies and ask how DEP was supporting communities adjusting to this change.  McDonnell said DEP has tried to be supportive of communities making changes in the kinds of materials they collect and looking at whether there any improved separation technology to make a cleaner product.
Sen. Blake also raised the issue of problems with recycling electronic waste, noting Sen. Gordner has introduced legislation on the issue [Senate Bill 52].  McDonnell said electronic waste recycling is a critical issue and he was looking forward to having conversations about how to solve it.
-- Nuclear Power/Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards: Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) said balancing state environmental goals with the clear benefits of competitive energy markets related to the issue of saving nuclear power plants is difficult and asked how difficult will it be to meet Gov. Wolf’s greenhouse gas reduction targets without nuclear plants.  McDonnell said he believes it comes down to what we pay for what value. It’s  no secret, he said, that nuclear plants are Pennsylvania’s biggest carbon free electric generation. In DEP’s modeling, he said they’ve seen increases in greenhouse gas emissions in coming years.
Sen. Steve Santesario (D-Bucks) asked if Pennsylvania should update the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards since other states around us have done more?  McDonnell said yes. DEP recently put out a Finding Pennsylvania’s Solar Future Plan which recommended significantly increasing the solar goal in the AEPS.  He said this is also an economic issue with 5,000 jobs in the state supported by solar and 3,000 jobs supported by wind energy.  
-- Alternative Fuel Vehicles: Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) asked what role the state plays in promoting alternative fuel vehicles.  McDonnell said the current Alternative Fuel Incentive Grant Program is focused on supporting natural gas and electric vehicle purchases by fleets and individuals.  The new Driving PA Forward initiative is an $118 million opportunity for promoting diesel engine replacements of all types with cleaner, alternative fuel vehicles.  DEP also recently released the Electric Vehicle Roadmap that looks at removing obstacles to promoting electric vehicles.
-- Vehicle Emissions Testing: Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Bedford) said a recent report by the Joint State Government Commission report says 7 counties, including Cambria County he represents, could be removed from the enhanced vehicle testing program. He asked if DEP is looking at revising the State Air Quality Implementation Plan to remove those counties.  McDonnell said DEP is preparing a response to the report and noted DEP disagrees with their conclusion. He said the fact Pennsylvania is in the Northeast Ozone Transport Region which also requires the program is another legal fact to consider.  Sen. Langerholc said he disagreed with DEP’s analysis.
[Note: The report itself says an advisory committee formed to assist in the development of the report concluded, “The overwhelming consensus of the advisory committee was that revisions to the SIP [State Air Quality Implementation Plan] suggested by Senate Resolution 168 that would remove certain counties from the vehicle emissions testing program are not authorized under the CAA [federal Clean Air Act].
“The driving factor in this conclusion is the fact that Congress included Pennsylvania in the Northeast Ozone Transport Region (OTR) under the CAA, and the CAA imposes expanded geographical coverage for vehicle inspection and maintenance programs in OTR states.
“Additionally, a majority of the advisory committee was also of the opinion that removing any counties from the SIP was inadvisable for adverse public health and environmental reasons."]
-- Environmental Justice: Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) asked about the status of the environmental justice program in DEP.  McDonnell said they are in the process of updating the 15-year old permit public participation policy. He also noted he completed a listening tour across the state and several roundtables to gather public input on the program.
-- Susquehanna River Basin Commission Funding: Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) said she was “alarmed” the budget gives another penny to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission in light of the findings by the Auditor General about lack of an updated agreement with DEP to avoid duplicating responsibilities, constantly increasing fees, entertainment expenses and the fact the federal government and other states haven’t been paying their shares.  McDonnell said she was absolutely right the federal government has not paid, but the other states have been paying. It is Pennsylvania that has not paid its obligation. He said DEP is working with SRBC on updating the agreement and would provide a timetable to the Committee.  He added he and the other Commissioners immediately made changes on expense policies in response to the Auditor General’s report.
[Note: The Susquehanna River Basin Commission meets March 15 to adopt further changes based on recommendations related to the Auditor General’s report. On fees, the Auditor General’s Report said, “SRBC management stated that in light of the current lack of funding being provided by signatory parties, the SRBC may need to consider reducing/eliminating discounts offered to municipal authorities."
[The performance audit done by the Auditor General concluded there was no duplication of effort between SRBC and DEP.]
-- Use Of Alternative Onlot Sewage Systems: Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) asked about the status of implementing Act 26 of 2017 allowing the use of alternate technology for onlot sewage systems.  He said there is a concern DEP is discouraging the use of alternative technologies.  McDonnell said DEP has been working on a technology verification protocol and a policy on the planning issue that received significant public comment.  The guidance on the planning issue DEP intends to revise and send out for a second round of public comment. He added Act 26 is Act 26 and if there are things going on in the field he wanted to know about them.
Click Here to watch a video of the entire hearing.  Click Here for DEP’s written budget testimony.
DCNR has its Senate budget hearing on March 4 at 3:00.  Watch Senate hearings live and get copies of written testimony and past videos of all Senate Appropriations Committee budget hearings at the Budget Hearings Summary webpage.
(Photo: Sen. Browne, Secretary McDonnell.)
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