Thursday, October 24, 2019

Correcting The Record: Sen. Pittman Attacks DEP For Not Being Able To Do Its Job; Well Look In The Mirror Senator

At the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee meeting on October 22, Sen. Joe Pittman (R-Indiana) verbally attacked DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell for his agency not being able to get a water supply permit done for a community in his district, while the Governor wants DEP to draft regulations to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and impose a carbon tax.
[Let’s note for the record the same people do not review drinking water permits and draft climate regulations, it requires different skills, but for argument’s sake, let's continue.]
Sen. Pittman started his remarks expressing concern for the impact of a carbon tax on three coal-fired, a coal-refuse fired and natural gas-fired power plants in his district that employ 1,000 people.  [Perfectly reasonable]
He urged McDonnell and the Governor to come to his district and meet with the employees whose livelihood they feel are threatened by a carbon tax.
Sen. Pittman then pointed out there are a variety of environmental crises in Pennsylvania.
“What concerns me is you reference [a] climate crisis, and I appreciate the notion that it is a crisis, but you know we have a lot of environmental crises in this Commonwealth,” said Sen. Pittman said. [Agreed, almost all going unaddressed by the General Assembly.]
He said a lot of communities in his district are without adequate public water supplies. [Maybe if the General Assembly provided funding?]
One example he said he is dealing with right now is a school district with an inadequate water supply [i.e. doesn’t meet Safe Drinking Water standards] and a municipal authority that has waited a year for a permit from DEP to do something about it.
“It wasn’t until I picked up the phone and got a hold of your bureaucrats [with emphasis] that they finally started to respond to my municipal authority.  In that time we missed three opportunities to get funding from PennVEST to solve this environmental crisis in our own backyard,” said Sen. Pittman. [Actually you can apply to PennVEST at any time, but delays are not helpful.]
“I’m really concerned that your department doesn’t have the ability to do what its designed to do already,” Sen. Pittman said. [And whose fault is that, really?]
“I go to your department, I get meetings and they tell me ‘geez we’re short-staffed, we’ve had a lot of staff turnover, there’s a lot going on right now.’  It shows me you’re not doing things in your own backyard. [Doesn’t make DEP staff wrong.]  
“We just reported out bills [from the Senate Environmental Committee] to reform your 102 and 105 permitting process because the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee made it very clear that the department’s not capable of running those permits in an efficient and consistent manner [Not really what it said, but more later]. 
“And we have not seen the improvement the taxpayers expect and deserve, so you’re not walking before you’re running here Mr. Secretary. [And whose fault is that, really?]
 Sen. Pittman then ended his comments by holding up an email he received from a DEP employee from a DEP email address scolding the Senator for supporting Senate Bill 619 that completely changes the standard established in the state Clean Streams Law to regulate pollution entering rivers and streams [For the worse, naturally].
“An employee of yours, a bureaucrat, is showing me that that kind of political bias exists within your department, how can I, with any confidence, believe that you are going to move this department forward whenever I see stuff like this coming out of it?  [Being pro-environment is a “political bias”?  So today’s Republicans are always against the environment? Wasn’t like that before.]
“I hear they are too busy, they can’t get permits done in time, but they have enough time to send this kind of garbage?” said Sen. Pittman. [Cheap shot.]
“I got to tell you Mr. Secretary, I’m not convinced you are able to run the department, let alone promulgate a regulation that will save the planet.” [Well phrased, but from what he said before, the Senator doesn’t have a pro-environment bias like DEP employees.]
With that, Sen. Pittman ended most of his comments.
On the last point, Secretary McDonnell said he would urge members or anyone else to share information with him about employees sending emails like that from Commonwealth owned equipment because using the equipment for that purpose is not appropriate.
With respect to the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee report, McDonnell said DEP had a number of “strong disagreements” with information in the report and he hoped the Senator had an opportunity to review that information.
McDonnell said climate issues are impacting DEP’s programs and stretching things, things like flooding impacts and programs like West Nile Virus which has an extended season for mosquito activity.  Before, he said, staff could spend half their time on vector control-- mosquitoes and ticks-- and half doing permits. Now that isn’t possible. 
Climate has a real impact on workload and its something DEP has to manage, McDonnell said.
McDonnell said the other reality, with respect to coal plants closing, is that we are not in RGGI now and coal-fired power plants have been closing because of the influx of natural gas.
He said joining RGGI will give us the ability to support those communities, and that’s a conversation they would like to have.
To watch a video of this exchange, go to the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee webpage for the meeting.  The exchange starts about about 1 hour 14 minutes.
The Real Story
Although Sen. Pittman said he only recently became a Senator, which is true, he was a long-time staffer for Sen. Don White (R-Indiana) who held the seat before him.  Sen. White was also a long-time member of the Senate Environmental Committee.  
Just plain Joe Pittman has been a witness to government operations and budgets for decades.
So, he should have remembered several things--
-- DEP’s General Fund Budget Cut 40%:  Sen. Pittman should have remembered DEP’s General Fund budget has been cut 40 percent over the last decade resulting in the loss of nearly one-third of its staff.  The water-related programs-- like Safe Drinking Water and Chapter 102 and 105 permit programs-- were hardest hit by these cuts because they were supported by General Fund dollars.
These programs are just now recovering somewhat as DEP adopts significant permit review fee increases to support staff and program operations, but those fees take 2 to 3 years to adopt by regulation.  
Many of the fee increases are opposed by today’s Republican members of the Senate and House.
In fact, the fee increase for the Safe Drinking Water Program, the program Sen. Pittman complained about, just went into effect in August of last year after taking nearly 3 years to get through the system and then it was opposed by some members and a water company.
With these additional funds, DEP hopes to hire an additional 33 staff people who take 2 to 3 years to train properly.  That’s the reality of things. You can’t start day one and review a permit.
-- Legislative Budget & Finance Committee Report: Sen. Pittman should know, if he read the whole LBFC report on DEP’s Chapter 102 and 105 Permit Program, that it actually documents the impact of the significant budget cuts on DEP’s ability to run the programs.  It even recommended DEP pursue a fee increase to get more resources for these programs because General Fund dollars were not available. The report also documented the fact that a significant amount of the review time for permits was DEP waiting for consultants (engineers) to get back to them to correct problems with applications.  These delays ran from 24 calendar days (nearly 4 weeks) to 55 days (nearly 8 weeks). These delays due to consultant issues have also been documented by conservation districts before the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.  The report also acknowledged DEP was taking significant steps to improve permit review, i.e. ePermitting and others. Click Here for more on the report.
-- Biggest Threat To Coal & Coal Refuse Plants Is Natural Gas: There is now no argument. By far the single biggest threat to coal and coal refuse plants closing is market competition from natural gas.  The PA Coal Alliance testified before the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee that 19 coal-fired power plants have shutdown in Pennsylvania since Pennsylvania deregulated its electric generation market in 1996. Sen. Pittman should have known that because Sen. White was a long-time member of the Committee and watched these plants close.
-- Permit Review Reforms: The bill Sen. Pittman referred to as “reforming” the Chapter 102 and 105 Permit Programs-- Senate Bill 891--would authorize a third-party permit review program.  It is by no means a reform, nor will it be effective. It would only make the existing process more complex and more costly without addressing the fundamental issues of why the programs have slowed down. [Budget cuts?] It also does not address the fact DEP has its own permit process reform initiatives underway that will address these issues, like ePermitting. And the General Assembly has done nothing to support these real initiatives. Click Here for more
-- Email From DEP Employee To Senator: Clearly, bringing up the email to the Senator from a DEP employee from a DEP email address was a very public ambush of the Secretary. [Come’on Joe, you were raised better than that.]  Just as clearly, the employee was wrong to express his concerns using a Commonwealth-owned system.  That doesn’t mean the sentiment expressed by the employee was wrong, however. Senate Bill 619 does gut the Clean Streams Law at the request of industry.  Click Here for more.
-- Indiana County Is Way Ahead Of You: In May 2017, Indiana County created the Sustainable Economic Development Task Force, a partnership with the Evergreen Conservancy, the Center for Community Growth, League of Women Voters of Indiana County, the Borough of Indiana, Indiana University of PA, The Indiana County Conservation District, and the Indiana County Center for Economic Operations, which includes the Chamber of Commerce, Tourist Bureau, IUP, The Indiana County Commissioners, The Office of Planning & Development, and the Indiana County Development Corporation to develop strategies and initiatives for local economic development grounded in clean energy, sustainable agriculture, eco-tourism, energy efficiency, environmental restoration and stewardship and the emerging field of using green chemistry to transform manufacturing.
They are working to provide family sustaining jobs and putting dislocated workers back to work building a resilient and diversified local economy.
Just last week, Indiana County held its 3rd Sustainable Economic Development Summit since 2017 based on the task force’s work and Beaver County is starting to follow their lead.  [County Commissioner Hess is not a relative BTW, but I wish she was]
Didn’t hear you mention this during the hearing as a way of dealing with the decline of industries over the past 30+ years that were once strong employers in Indiana County.
Bottom Line
The bottom line on this exchange between Sen. Pittman and Secretary McDonnell is this-- yes, in many ways DEP is not doing the job the way they should, but the primary reason is not the “bureaucrats” politicians like to rail against.  [And besides, Joe, these are the people who will solve your problem, don’t forget that. So feel free to yell at them as much as you want.  I’m sure that will motivate them.]
The problem is the people who run the General Assembly and Governors who have consistently cut DEP’s budget, not funded real solutions to improve permit reviews and still expect them to speed permit reviews.
In spite of these significant handicaps, even the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee report acknowledged DEP is undertaking real initiatives to reform and speed permit reviews and needed more resources to do its job.
Sen. Pittman, if you want to grand-stand, go to a parade.  If you want to be part of the solution, use what you’ve learned as a Senate staffer for several decades and work the problem.
I know you’re better than this.
(Written by David E. Hess, former Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection and Senate staffer.]
Senate Republicans Moving Troublesome Bills:
[Posted: October 24, 2019]

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