Tuesday, September 17, 2019

House Committee Approves Bills To Fire All DEP Employees Reviewing Environmental Permits & Create Another Bureaucracy; Cut Public Comment Out Of Permit Reviews

On September 17, the House State Government Committee approved 2 bills in the House Republican Energize PA natural gas use subsidy package that terminates all DEP employees now doing 31,000 environmental permit reviews and create another bureaucracy to those review permits and set environmental standards; and eliminate the public’s ability to comment on any permit application.
It also means all development in Pennsylvania will be dead in the water for 3 to 5 years until the new staff gets trained.
The bills were voted out of the Committee by a party-line vote, Republicans supporting.  The bills were--
-- House Bill 1107 (O'Neal-R-Washington)-- creates 5 member politically appointed commission named by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate to “administer the permitting and plan approval process es vested in DEP by law,” including promulgating regulations establishing permitting requirements and environmental standards and taking action on individual permit applications.
It would require the transfer of all appropriations, equipment, files used by DEP to review permit applications to the new Commission.
However, the bill specifically says, “The transfer of resources as required by this subsection shall not include current or displace employees of the department.” The bill requires all existing DEP employees handling permit reviews to be terminated from their positions [in spite of what the prime sponsor of the bill says-- read the bill], although they could apply to the Commission for a job.
The bill does not require Commission employees to be covered by civil service requirements, so they can all be political appointments with zero qualifications.
A technical amendment was made to the bill that does not change the substance.
[Editor’s Note: DEP issues, on average, 31,000 permits and approvals a year, which means the 5 people on the Commission would have to review and make a decision on a permit/approval every 17 minutes, 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.  They should be able to handle that, right?   (Unless they want to become a rubber stamp for staff decisions.)
[And having a brand new staff in the new commission-- which typically takes several years to train in state and federal requirements to do reviews-- will simply stop all development in Pennsylvania for 3 to 5 years until they do get adequately trained.
[Of course it could be less time if those doing the training had experience at permit reviews and knew not only the state regulations, but federal requirements and how court and Environmental Hearing Board decisions have impacted permit rules over the last few decades for the hundreds of different types of permits and approvals DEP is responsible for issuing.
[And lets not forget about opportunities for public review of permit applications, writing comment/response documents and turning out permits they would have to defend and that can withstand legal challenges.  
[These are just some of the practical realities that House Republicans refuse to acknowledge.
[The other reality is environmental permits and enforcement work hand-in-hand.  Permits set the requirements to protect the environment that enforcement staff need to enforce.  In most programs, permit reviewers have a role in enforcement because they are familiar with the permit requirements and why they were included.  
[If those 2 functions are in separate agencies, that means, literally, the left hand won’t know what the right hand is doing.  You are just asking for a big, complicated mess that means neither agency will be able to do their job, unless that's what Republicans want.
[And how is creating another bureaucracy to do permit reviews helping?  Shouldn’t you try to solve the problems with the existing process? Which DEP is actually doing?
[Of course House Republicans have provided zero assistance to support real solutions to the permit review issues at DEP, like money to convert to electronic submission and review of permit applications, money to train consultants who routinely submit up to half their permit applications incomplete or with technical mistakes that can delay permit reviews by 6 weeks or more.
[And the Joint Legislative Budget & Finance Committee report in June confirmed the negative impacts of budget cuts at DEP and the delays in permit reviews caused by consultants (engineers) getting back to the agency with corrections.
[These bills are like the classic Penrose Stairs giving people the illusion they are getting somewhere. Also known as the “never ending stairs.”
[A lot more could be said, but these bills are a political statement and aren’t to be taken seriously..... huge sigh showing disappointment]; and
-- House Bill 1106 (Puskaric-R-Allegheny)-- requires DEP approval of any permit regulating air quality, waste, erosion and sedimentation and dam safety and encroachments within 30 days without regard to public review of permits, creates a new bureaucracy in the form of a “referee” to decide disputes between DEP and applicants over application completeness.
[Editor’s Note: Just to be clear, nothing in this bill will deal with the real issues behind why permit reviews are not being done fast enough.  The fact House Bill 1106 eliminates the ability of the public to comment on any environmental permit is no doubt a plus in the minds of the bill’s Republicans sponsors.
[These bills are part of the continued House Republican assault on effective environmental permit reviews without regard to common sense or the real issues holding up permit decisions, like Republican cuts in DEP’s General Fund appropriations by 40 percent over the last decade and the resulting loss of nearly 30 percent of its staff positions.
[Facts uncovered by the House Environmental Committee in hearings this year show permit review problems at DEP are much different than Republican press releases would tell you they are.]
The bills now move to the full House for consideration.
Rep. Garth Everett (R-Lycoming) serves as Majority Chair of the House State Government Committee and can be contacted by calling 717-787-5270 or sending email to: geverett@pahousegop.com.   Rep. Kevin Boyle (D-Montgomery) serves as Minority Chair and can be contacted by calling 717-783-4944 or sending email to: RepKevinBoyle@pahouse.net
(Photo: Penrose Stairs)
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