Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Temporary Stay Of Execution For Permitting Programs That Protect Pennsylvania’s Environment

House Republicans ended the week without taking final votes on two bills that would have, on the one hand, devastated Pennsylvania’s environmental permitting programs and, on the other, eliminated the public’s opportunity to review and comment on those permits.
But, it is only a temporary stay of execution because House Republicans will try again when they come back to Harrisburg on October 21.
Both are part of the House Republican EnergizePA natural gas subsidy package.
Demolish Environmental Permitting
House Bill 1107 (O'Neal-R-Washington) creates a 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 and approvals.
It would require the transfer of all appropriations, equipment, files used by DEP to review permit applications to the new Commission, but notably not any of DEP’s current permit review staff.
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 reviewing permits, although they could apply to the Commission for a job or be transferred to another agency doing something they were not trained to do.
The bill does not require Commission employees to be covered by civil service, so they can all be political appointments with zero qualifications.
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 just want to become a rubber stamp for staff decisions. 
The most significant obstacle to this proposal actually doing anything are the provisions requiring all new staff  which typically take 3 to 5 years to train in state and federal requirements.
And what happens while staff is being trained?  Nothing.  
Permits don’t get reviewed or a very few, yet those 31,000 applications are still coming in the door.
Of course training could take 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 yes, engineers know a lot, but here’s the kicker-- engineers are the ones submitting permit applications missing information or technically deficient 40, 50  or 60 percent of the time, depending on the environmental permit you pick.
And engineers are the ones that take 6 weeks to get back to conservation districts or DEP with corrections, as the House Environmental Committee found out earlier this year.  So let’s not dump on DEP or engineers-- work the problem!
And let’s not forget about opportunities for public review of permit applications, writing comment/response documents and turning out permits they would have to defend at the Environmental Hearing Board and in court.  
These are just some of the practical realities that today’s Republicans refuse to acknowledge in their headlong rush to make political points with…. well it couldn’t be the business community because they would be dead in the water without permits.
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.  
A properly constructed permit can avoid enforcement issues down the road.
If those two 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 today’s Republicans want.
The prime sponsor of the bill actually said in Committee the idea of the bill is to relieve DEP of the “burden” of doing permit reviews so it can focus on the true mission-- enforcing environmental laws.
This from members who are ALWAYS complaining that DEP enforces too much.  The circle of irony is complete.
And how is creating another bureaucracy to do permit reviews really helping?  Shouldn’t you try to solve the problems with the existing process? It’s ultimately cheaper and faster. 
Of course today’s 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 that Joint Legislative Budget & Finance Committee report in June Republicans like to quote?  It actually confirms 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 sometimes as long as 6 weeks later.
These and other facts getting at the real problems with DEP permitting reviews were accidentally uncovered by Republicans at the House Environmental Committee hearings earlier this year, but, again, conveniently forgotten because they didn’t match the press releases put out by today’s Republicans.
House Bill 1107 was referred to the House Appropriations Committee.  When it comes out of Committee, it will be in position for a final House vote.
Eliminating Public Review
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 and creates a new bureaucracy in the form of a “referee” to decide disputes between DEP and applicants over application completeness.
The 30 day deadline does not allow any time for opportunities for public review and comment on these permits as required by other state and federal laws.
The word “public” appears nowhere in this bill.
House Bill 1106 is on the House Calendar for final action.
Part Of A General Assault
These bills are part of the continued assault on effective environmental permit reviews and regulations by today’s Republicans without regard to common sense or the real issues holding up permit decisions.
Just to be clear, nothing in these bill will actually deal with the real issues behind why permit reviews are not being done fast enough. 
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 has significantly diminished DEP’s ability to do permit reviews faster.
Just passing a law wishing permits were reviewed in 30 days won’t make it happen.  It’s like waiting for the tooth fairy to give you a prize without digging in your pocket for a quarter to give your child.
Only hard work to reform the system will make a difference.
This bill and others are an attempt by Harrisburg politicians to give people the illusion they are getting somewhere. 
Today’s Republicans will no doubt tout this as “Government Done Right.”  
To paraphrase-- “If this is right, I want to be wrong.”
A lot more could be said, but this and other bills championed by today’s Republicans on this issue are simply political statements and can’t be taken seriously..... huge sigh showing disappointment.
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