Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Updated With Major Questions Asked: DEP Budget Hearing: Republicans Propose Funding Hazardous Sites Cleanup By Taking Funds Away From Recycling; Oppose Wolf Climate Initiatives

At the House hearing on DEP’s budget request February 24, Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York), Majority Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said he is opposed to increasing the fee on municipal waste to pay for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Program and suggested taking funding away from Recycling to support the Program.
Although waste tipping fees are $100 or more a ton in many parts of Pennsylvania, according to DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell, Rep. Saylor expressed a concern about the impact the $1 per ton increase on waste disposed in the state would have on residents.  Gov. Wolf proposed the increase to fund the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Program. [Click Here for more.]
The Recycling Fund pays for 90 percent of local recycling program implement grants, gives municipalities performance grants for the amount of recyclables they collect, funds anti-dumping and anti-littering efforts, pays for host municipality waste facility inspectors and more.   
At the same time, Rep. Saylor opind Pennsylvania has done a “great job” with recycling and environmental cleanup and he wondered what states like Maryland, who are thinking about suing Pennsylvania over the Chesapeake Bay Program, would do if we cut off their power from our power plants and access to our landfills for their garbage.
On the Chesapeake Bay Program, Rep. Saylor says the problem is not farmers, it’s the people who apply lawn fertilizer eight times a year that cause runoff into our streams and rivers and we need to do something about that issue.
[In fact, Pennsylvania is in its ninth year of considering legislation to regulate turf application of fertilizer without action.  The Senate passed legislation last year, but it died in the House without action. Click Here for more.]
Secretary McDonnell said farmers have been an important partner with DEP in developing the Phase III Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan.  He has also noted in other venues, how the agriculture community took a leadership role in that process to come to agreement on a number of critical steps to reduce pollution from farms.  [Click Here for more.]
Rep. Saylor also said DEP should increase its budget for PR to tell people all the good things we have done, recognizing we have to do more.
Other issues touched on during the hearing were very predictable. 
Republicans raised the issue of DEP permit backlogs [reduced from 8,715 in 2018 to about 500 now] and suggested the use of third party private permit reviewers [even though that is prohibited by many federal programs, more costly, and riddled with conflicts of interest]; Republicans opposed the RGGI greenhouse gas reduction initiative [without proposing an alternative or acknowledging the problem]; Republicans were worried the proposed increase in Air Quality staff in the budget and DEP moving ahead with permit fee increases [the increase in the budget is to increase staff, the permit fee increases are to pay for existing staff and responsibilities]; Republicans opposed the Delaware River Basin Commission’s proposed moratorium on fracking; Republicans expressed concerns about the need to clean out streams to prevent flooding [without proposing any funding to do it];  Republicans were concerned about the increase in oil and gas well permit fees; and wondered whether DEP is using performance measures to manage programs [they are].
Democrats supported the RGGI and other climate initiatives such as promoting the use of electric vehicles; urged increases in penalties for air pollution violations; supported efforts to set stricter environmental standards for construction of natural gas pipelines and to set a drinking water standard for PFAS/PFOS “forever chemicals;” and expressed concern about the underfunding of DEP.
Summary of Questions
Here is a quick summary of the major questions asked at the hearing--
-- DEP Permit Backlog Drops Dramatically: Rep. Keith Greiner (R-Lancaster), Rep. Marcia Hahn (R-Northampton) and Rep. George Dunbar (R-Westmoreland) asked about apparent discrepancies in budget paperwork showing different numbers for the DEP permit backlog.  McDonnell said DEP has successfully reduced the permit backlog by 1,743 percent from 8,715 permits in 2018 to about 500 permits today. He said many of the remaining permits have legal issues or DEP staff are waiting for applicants to respond to deficiencies.  McDonnell said DEP made the dramatic reductions by shifting work between regions, authorizing overtime and denying permits where DEP is not getting the information needed to complete its review. He said in 2019, 95 percent of permits covered by the Permit Review Guarantee Program [established by Gov. Corbett] were done on time.  He added DEP is working to improve the turnaround time for permits that drop out of that system and permit reviews generally by converting to electronic permitting and taking other steps.  [The Independent Fiscal Office DEP Performance Budget report recently highlighted DEP’s significant gains in dealing with its backlog and permit review times.]
-- DEP Committed To Performance Budgeting:  Rep. George Dunbar (R-Westmoreland) noted the Independent Fiscal Office Performance Budgeting Report for DEP included significant improvements in DEPs permitting programs, but there were some numbers that were not as good. He asked if DEP is committed to looking at those numbers for more than just once every five years as the performance budgeting program requires.  McDonnell said they are committed to using the performance numbers and beyond those numbers to improve the management of permitting programs. He said they are managing permit review trends which are the most important indicators. McDonnell added DEP is now investing more in staff training and the information technology to do things like electronic permitting to improve the agency’s programs, something DEP has not done in a while because of significant budget cuts.
-- Pitfalls Of Third Party Permit Reviews: Rep. Greg Rothman (R-Cumberland) brought up the perennial issue of DEP letting third party private consultants review and make decisions on its permits as a way of speeding permit reviews. McDonnell said many of the federal permit programs do not allow third party private consultants to play that kind of role.  He pointed out there are also conflict of interest issues with consultants review permits and at the same time submitting permits on the same issues to DEP to review. McDonnell said most proposals he has seen also take permit fees and give them to the private consultants to review permits. He said doing that would leave DEP in a very difficult financial situation because permit fees do not just pay for permit reviews, they pay for inspections, monitoring and enforcement actions.  McDonnell said DEP is focused on electronic permitting, having good permit processes, training staff and giving staff the IT resources they need. [McDonnell could have pointed out one of the huge problems DEP and conservation districts have is those same private consultants submit permit applications that are incomplete or wrong more than half the time and often take an average of six weeks to get corrections back to these agencies.  Click Here for more.]
-- Problems With Hazardous Sites Cleanup Funding Pointed Out For Years:  Rep. Rosemary Brown (R-Monroe) expressed concern about the impact on homeowners of a proposal to increase the municipal waste disposal fee by $1 per ton to provide funding for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Program.  She asked why are legislators just hearing about this now? McDonnell said current municipal waste tipping fees are about $100 per ton so a $1 per ton increase would not be a significant. He also noted the issue of funding for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Program, which is critical to address PFAS contaminated sites, paying the state’s share of federal Superfund site cleanups and supporting brownfields cleanup and redevelopment, has been brought up in budget years for years.
Both Rep. Brown and Rep. Saylor raised the issue of taking money out of the Recycling Fund and using it to pay for Hazardous Sites Cleanup. McDonnell said the Recycling Fund dollars pay 90 percent of local recycling program implement grants, gives municipalities performance grants for the amount of recyclables they collect, funds anti-dumping and anti-littering efforts, pays for host municipality waste facility inspectors and more.  He said while it seems like there is a balance in the Fund, those dollars are committed to paying the grants to communities and supporting these programs.
-- Pennsylvania Still On Track To Adopt Its Own PFAS Limit For Drinking Water: Rep. Benjamin Sanchez (D-Montgomery) asked, in light of the EPA announcement they plan to now set a maximum contaminant level for PFAS “forever chemicals” in drinking water, will that delay DEP in adopting its own standard as they previously announced?  McDonnell said DEP will still adopt its own standard and is now doing statewide PFAS sampling to help better define the problem. DEP also has a contract with Drexel University to help determine the right level that is safe level and should get a recommendation by the end of the year.  DEP is now also in the middle of a public comment period on a PFAS cleanup standard for soil and groundwater through the Land Recycling Program.  McDonnell said the federal government is still at least four years away from setting a standard.  He noted again, additional funding for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Program is a critical part of the response to PFAS contamination.  [Visit DEP’s PFAS In Pennsylvania webpage for more.]
-- EPA Pointed To Air Quality Staffing Deficiencies For Years:  Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford) noted there has been significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions due to the switch to natural gas and questioned why DEP’s budget request is asking for 15 more people if air quality is improving. He also expressed concern about DEP “double-dipping” by asking for Air Quality permit fee increases at the same time.  McDonnell said EPA has noted staffing deficiencies in its program that administers the federal Clean Air Act for the federal government for some time. DEP has seen a 25 percent decrease in Air Quality staff over the years as a result of General Fund budget cuts. The additional staff requested are needed to respond to those deficiencies. He said the permit fee increases are needed to pay for existing staff which handle permit reviews, inspections, air quality monitoring and importantly modeling work which is an important part of permit reviews for a whole range of pollutants. He explained DEP is also required by law to charge permit fees sufficient to cover the costs of its permitting program.   [Note: DEP does not now regulate carbon dioxide, but would regulate it under the pending RGGI greenhouse gas proposal covering power plants.]
-- Penalties For Air Pollution Violations Should Increase/Local Warning Systems: Rep. Austin Davis (D-Allegheny) said recent air pollution episodes involving the Clairton Coke (Coal) Works in Allegheny County have highlighted the need to increase penalties for air pollution violations.  The current fines, he believes, are treated like a cost of doing business. He also said there is a need for local warning systems to warn residents of pollution events that could harm them. Both are in House Bill 1752 he sponsored. McDonnell said he would review the legislation.  He also explained Allegheny County administers its own Air Pollution Control Program under the authority in the state Air Pollution Control Act.
-- Even Permit Fee Increase May Not Cover Cost Of Oil & Gas Program:  Rep. Clint Owlett (R-Tioga) expressed concern about the proposed increase in the oil and gas well permit fees because fees are passed along to customers of these companies.  He also asked how DEP is using the $6 million [or so] the agency gets from Act 13 drilling fees. McDonnell said the permit fees fund not just permit reviews, but inspection, oversight, reporting and regulation development for all oil and gas wells in the state.  He noted it’s probably the worst way to fund this particular program because it is not a reliable source of income. He said the final permit fee package just approved by the Environmental Quality Board probably will not generate the revenue needed to support the program because it was built on receiving about 2,000 permit a year and now they are getting about 1,500.  McDonnell said the money from the Act 13 drilling fees was used to fill in the deficits caused by a decline in oil and gas permits.
-- Tighten DEP Regulations Covering Pipelines: Rep. Carolyn Comitta (D-Chester) asked if DEP is tightening provisions in its Chapter 105 (water obstruction and encroachment) and Chapter 102 (erosion and sedimentation) regulations to incorporate lessons learned from all the problems occurring during the construction of the Mariner East Pipeline.  She was particularly concerned about issues like identification of private water supplies, detailed geological analysis for sinkholes and landslide risks and notification of adjacent property owners, incorporating best management practices for preventing discharges of drilling fluids at stream crossings and more comprehensive restoration requirements.  McDonnell said changes have been proposed in the Chapter 105 regulations to require more information from the applicant upfront in the process and the agency is developing new technical guidance on horizontal drilling pipeline construction that will outline best practices for the prevention of adverse environmental impacts and the procedures for considering those permits.  He said DEP does not have a good database of private water wells and is one of only a few states that does not track that information. McDonnell also noted Gov. Wolf called for new legislation on the siting of pipeline routes as part of his budget address.]
-- Funding Not Available To Fix Many Current Stream Problems: Rep. Jeff Wheeland (R-Lycoming) said while DEP has been helpful recently in addressing issues like cleaning out sandbars and stream blockages under bridges, he said it seems like many people believe if we ignore the problem it will go away.  He suggested diverting money from other parts of DEP’s budget to address the immediate streams problems faced by communities. McDonnell said DEP has been doing a lot to clarify the requirements for when and how communities can get into streams safely to clean them out to prevent flooding and is working to simplify the permit processes for more extensive work.  He noted Pennsylvania has seen a 10 percent increase in precipitation over the last few decades and another 8 percent is projected into the future. He said we are also going to see more frequent storms, so this problem is likely to get worse [as a result of climate change]. [DEP and Gov. Wolf have been pointing out the need for new funding for stream and watershed restoration work for years, not only through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Phase III Implementation Plan which covers Lycoming County, but in many other ways.  The latest proposal-- Restore Pennsylvania-- would address these issues and more.  Republicans have yet to offer a credible response.]
-- Army Corps To Make Decision On Frances E. Walter Dam:  Rep. Doyle Heffley (R-Carbon) asked what role DEP will play in making the decision about how the water in the Frances E. Walter Dam will be used.  He said New York City is attempting to take the water from the dam.  He said DEP sits on the Delaware River Basin Commission and while Pennsylvania has 50 percent of the land area in the basin, but is only one of four votes.  McDonnell explained the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers [which owns the dam] will make the decision on how the water is used, not the Delaware River Basin Commission.  He said he shares the concerns about the potential impact on recreation and other resources and is engaged in the process to help protect those resources.
-- Delaware/Susquehanna River Basin Commissions Have Different Responsibilities Than DEP:  Rep. Jonathan Fritz (R-Wayne) asked a series of questions about the responsibilities and funding of the Delaware River and Susquehanna River Basin Commissions versus DEP suggesting there is significant overlap in their authority.  McDonnell said the Commissions have separate responsibilities for ground and surface water quantity issues, manage the stream and river flows in their watersheds to protect their uses, and in the case of DRBC a special protection watershed program.  [Rep. Fritz is opposed to the proposed DRBC fracking moratorium and has been taking a series of steps to try to reduce the authority of the Commission, make them pay for any property value allegedly lost if a fracking moratorium is put in place and more.  The Auditor General released a report in November of 2018 saying SRBC and DRBC do not duplicate functions of DEP.]
-- Minority Hiring/Litter Control/Asbestos: Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia) asked a series of questions on minority hiring at DEP, about DEP’s efforts to address litter and illegal dumping and its role in with lead contamination and asbestos removal efforts from schools and other facilities.  McDonnell acknowledged the long-term issue of minority hiring for environmental programs, and said DEP has just established a new diversity committee to look at ways to increase recruitment, especially from colleges with large numbers of minority students.  On litter he noted, DEP, PennDOT and Keep PA Beautiful just released a new litter survey and are in the process of developing a new Litter Action plan. [Click Here for more.]  McDonnell explained DEP’s Air Quality Program is involved in certification of asbestos remediation contractors and for making sure steps are taken for the safe removal of asbestos. DEP has been involved statewide on the issue of lead in drinking water.
-- DEP Actively Promoting Use Of Electric, Clean Fuel Vehicles: Rep. Patty Kim (D-Dauphin) asked what steps DEP is taking to encourage the use of electric vehicles, noting downtown Harrisburg just opened a public charging station last week.  McDonnell said DEP worked with stakeholders to develop the Electric Vehicle Roadmap that outlines a series of strategies for increasing electric vehicle use across the state.  He added the Driving PA Forward and Alternative Fuel Incentive Grant programs are providing funding for charging stations and electric and clean vehicle purchases by fleets and individuals.
-- RGGI Proposal Will Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Provide Economic Opportunity:  Several Republican members asked questions about the RGGI greenhouse gas reduction program that have been asked several times in other committee hearings or briefing sessions.  They all pointed to what they believe will be the negative economic impacts of this still incomplete proposal.
McDonnell said DEP is in the middle of its development process consulting with dozens of stakeholders, modeling the effectiveness of the proposal at reducing carbon dioxide emissions and completing an analysis that will outline the economic impact of the proposal on Pennsylvania.
He again said in response to questions, provisions have been made in the proposal to make sure there are not significant impacts on the coal waste-fired power plant industry that reclaims abandoned coal waste piles.
Significantly, McDonnell said the “do nothing” option shows the closure of coal-fired power plants will continue as market forces, driven by low natural gas prices, make them uneconomical.  The “do nothing” option also shows a shift of energy generation to other states as they develop more sources of renewable energy.
Eighteen coal plants have closed since the widespread development of natural gas in Pennsylvania. 
He noted, with RGGI, the state would have the resources to help deal with the dislocation impacts on these workers and communities left behind by coal plant closures, which it has not dealt with to date..
Future budget hearings on environmental programs are scheduled for--
March 2 - Senate Hearing: 10:00 - Dept. of Agriculture;
March 3 - Senate Hearing: 1:00 - Dept. of Conservation & Natural Resources;
March 4 - Senate Hearing: 10:00 - Dept. of Environmental Protection.
(Photo: Rep. Saylor) 
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[Posted: February 24, 2020]

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