DEP Secretary Promotes Restore PA Bond Proposal To Get More Funding For Environmental Improvement Projects
In his written testimony and in response to questions about the need for more funding to address critical watershed restoration, hazardous substance cleanup, stormwater and flooding issues, DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell pointed to the need for the proposed $4.5 billion Restore Pennsylvania Bond Initiative as a way of getting those resources in his appearance before the House Appropriations Committee Thursday.
“DEP welcomes the opportunity to add resources which will help us better achieve our mission to protect public health and the environment, and Restore Pennsylvania is the only option available to provide much--needed resources for many of the department’s priority areas,” said McDonnell.
McDonnell also addressed concerns expressed by several members of the Committee about the transfer of monies from the Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) and Recycling funds to pay agency operating expenses by saying they are going to manage those funds to keep the same level of effort in funding local environmental and recycling projects.
He also said that while these transfers were proposed for several years, they would be evaluated each year to ensure DEP is meeting its project funding obligations.
Here’s a quick summary of some of the key issues raised at the hearing--
-- Use of Special Funds For Operating Costs: Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) asked what has changed the Administration’s mind on using special funds this year for administrative costs when 2 years ago the Administration was strongly opposed to the idea. McDonnell said this proposal would maintain the same level of support for local projects and would be evaluated each year to see that it is meeting that goal.
Rep. Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery), Minority Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said members of his Caucus have concerns about the use of special fund monies to pay agency operating costs at DEP and DCNR. McDonnell said DEP is going to manage the Environmental Stewardship and Recycling funds to assure they same level of effort to support projects that it supports now. And although the transfers were proposed to be multi-year, DEP will be evaluated every year to make sure the funds are there to support the projects. He added the Restore Pennsylvania Initiative would provide funding to address many of these same issues and would be welcomed by his agency.
Rep. Leanne Krueger (D-Delaware) also asked about the transfers saying what assurances can be given the money will be there to fund projects. McDonnell noted again the transfers were proposed to be multiyear, but it will be evaluated every year to make sure the funds are there. He added the Restore Pennsylvania Initiative would provide funding to address many of these same issues.
-- Current DEP Staffing Level: Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware), Minority Chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, expressed concerns about current staffing levels at DEP-- about 2,300 filled, 2,400 total positions now. He noted the federal government was concerned about the ability of DEP to meet minimum standards needed to run programs it administers for the feds, for example, the resources needed to achieve the Chesapeake Bay Watershed cleanup goals and many other water quality cleanup obligations across the state, the Air Quality and other programs. McDonnell said there is no doubt DEP needs more resources to achieve the water quality cleanup obligations and fee increases proposed in Air Quality and Oil and Gas address some of the staffing issues in programs. He added Restore Pennsylvania can also be a real benefit in funding needed projects.
-- Restore Pennsylvania: Rep. Bradford (D-Montgomery) later asked a more specific questions about the role Restore Pennsylvania proposal has in helping to backfill some of the monies transferred to pay administrative costs. McDonnell said, even if the Environmental Stewardship Fund wasn’t touched, it would not be able to handle funding for the projects needed to deal with the scale of flooding and stormwater pollution we saw last summer and Restore Pennsylvania can be an answer to the shortfall of resources.
Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D-Philadelphia) said she is troubled by the fact Restore Pennsylvania funding is based on the continuance and growth of natural gas drilling in the state and that it would be monetized to support a bond that will not be paid off for decades. She also asked about support for other clean energy alternatives. McDonnell said some other environmental programs like recycling are supported by fees on municipal waste for example, and Restore Pennsylvania would also provide funding for clean energy and energy efficiency initiatives.
Rep. Peter Schweyer (D-Lehigh) asked what DEP’s priority list is for funding capital projects to improve the environment and deal with issues like flooding and stormwater. McDonnell said Restore Pennsylvania does cover the things they would be concerned with, adding “green infrastructure” like floodplain restoration are particularly important because they take the water’s energy away to reduce flooding and reduce stormwater pollution. Farm conservation best management practices funded by Restore Pennsylvania would also carry multiple benefits of reducing nutrient runoff and help with stormwater and flooding issues.
Rep. Stephen McCarter (D-Montgomery) asked about the commitment in the Restore Pennsylvania Initiative to implement programs related to address changes caused by climate change like increased flooding and stormwater issues. McDonnell said flexibility is needed for communities to deal with stormwater issues, pointing to the model in the Phase III Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan where counties have been developing their own plans for meeting the pollution reduction goals. He added, DEP needs to support those plans
Rep. McCarter followed up asking what the existing resources were available to deal with the flooding issues. McDonnell said “hardscape” flood projects are handled in the Capital Budget process and DEP has a small Stream Improvement Program with about $250,000 in funding-- no where near what is needed.
-- Flooding, Stormwater: Rep. James Struzzi (R-Indiana) said people all across the state are dealing with flooding and stormwater problems and have really suffered from these problems and asked about support from DEP. McDonnell said DEP has been quickly turning around emergency permits to cover immediate responses to these problems. DEP has also been funding green infrastructure projects that restore streams, reduce flooding and improve water quality to address these issues, adding the Restore Pennsylvania Initiative is really needed to fund projects that deal with these problems.
-- Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Obligations: Rep. Maria Donatucci (D-Delaware) asked about how Pennsylvania plans to meet its Chesapeake Bay Watershed cleanup obligations by 2025. McDonnell said Pennsylvania has a major task to reduce 34 million pounds of nitrogen and 375,000 pounds of phosphorus pollution coming from our part of the watershed. He then summarized the update provided in his written testimony. Nutrient pollution, he added, first has a major impact in Pennsylvania’s own watersheds and streams before it ever gets to the Bay. He said everyone acknowledges it will take more resources and initiatives like Restore Pennsylvania Initiative to provide those resources.
Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York), Majority Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, asked if the city in New York that dumped millions of gallons of wastewater into the Susquehanna River has been penalized in any way [Binghamton, New York during August flooding.]. He said he thought Pennsylvania has been held to a higher standard on reducing pollution than other states. He also noted volunteers can play a bigger role in reducing pollution and addressing watershed issues and that should be encouraged. Rep. Saylor added nothing is being done about fertilizing residential lawns and we need to pay attention to that. McDonnell said he was not aware if they were fined or not, but the issue Pennsylvania has is scale-- Lancaster County alone has to reduce nitrogen by 9 million pounds and Maryland has reduce nitrogen by 4 million pounds.
-- Waste Coal Power Plants: Rep. Doyle Heffley (R-Carbon) thanked DEP for its role in putting out of the Jeansville Mine Fire and asked about the environmental improvement and reclamation opportunities presented by waste coal-fired power plants and what the state can do to promote them. Asked specifically about proposed Air Quality Fee increase and the impact it would have on these plants. McDonnell said it is an industry they are trying to be supportive of in several ways, most recently through comments to EPA on ozone standards pointing to the importance of waste coal power plants to reclamation. There is also an existing Coal Refuse Energy Tax Credit through DCED that benefits these plants. He noted there are concerns about the Air Quality fee proposal, but DEP has obligations to the federal government for this program, in particular deficiencies that must be addressed.
-- Permit Review Process Improvements/Fees: Rep. Greg Rothman (R-Cumberland) asked about the status of changes to make permit review process more efficient and timely. McDonnell briefly summarized the information included in his written budget testimony involving epermitting, electronic inspection reports and other changes DEP has made
Rep. Rothman also asked about DEP’s position on third party permit reviews. McDonnell said there are a number of issues, in particular in programs DEP administers for the federal government and there would be problems related to handling permit appeals.
Rep. James Struzzi (R-Indiana) asked what other other steps DEP has taken to improve the permit process. McDonnell pointed to encouraging more use of the pre-application tool on DEP’s website and pre-application conferences with applicants so they know what the requirements are upfront from the permit process
Rep. Lee James (R-Venango) asked how DEP arrives at the amount set for permit review fee increases. McDonnell said there are program by program workload evaluations of costs and other issues like concerns the federal government has about whether DEP has the resources to meet minimum federal standards. McDonnell said when he started with DEP in 1998, DEP budget was funded by roughly one-third by state funding, one-third from the federal government and one-third from permit fees, fines and penalties. Now it’s less than 20 percent state General Fund monies, 30 percent federal and 50 percent permit fees, fines and penalties.
Rep. Struzzi (R-Indiana) expressed concerned about the size of the proposed permit fee increases on gas drilling permits and with the talk of a natural gas severance tax. McDonnell said DEP is losing $800,000 every month in fee income to support the Oil and Gas Management Program and the fee increases are needed to support the existing level of effort. He also outlined the improvements in efficiency and cost reductions in administration of the program as noted in the written testimony.
Rep. Doyle Heffley (R-Carbon) expressed a concern about a bog turtle review delaying highway projects in his area. McDonnell said there are processes around protecting endangered species and urged the Representative to get him the specific information.
-- Cost Of Environmental Lawsuits Against DEP: Rep. Jason Ortitay (R-Allegheny) referenced a letter sent to DEP recently asking about how much money was spent by DEP to reimburse environmental groups for legal fees when they win permit appeals. Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York), Majority Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, (who sent the letter) interjected saying he believes these environmental groups “are destroying your budget” and costing taxpayers money. McDonnell said DEP is putting the information together, but noted statutes allow for the reimbursement of legal fees. Rep. Ortaty followed up to ask if DEP is doing something wrong that so many permits are being appealed. McDonnell said only a small percentage of permits are appealed.
Rep. Leanne Krueger (D-Delaware) later asked how much staff time and money was being spent by DEP to fight the oil and gas industry in court when they challenge DEP’s regulations. McDonnell said he would have to get members that information.
-- Climate Change: Rep. Jason Ortitay (R-Allegheny) asked about the recommendations included in the Climate Action Plan and if the plan include an evaluation of the economic impact the changes in the AEPS will have. McDonnell said the Plan is being finalized and due out next month, but it will call for increasing the renewable energy percentages in the AEPS and that it does look at cost and he would provide members more information.
Rep. Jonathan Fritz (R-Wayne) noted the shift to using natural gas has caused significant improvements in air pollution and greenhouse gas reductions and wondered if the Secretary could quantify that. McDonnell said because of this shift to natural gas in electric generation Pennsylvania has already met the original Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan greenhouse gas reduction goals-- about a 30 percent reduction in emissions from the power generation sector-- as well as reductions in air pollution. But, he said, there is also a big opportunity in the transportation space to convert to natural gas and electric vehicles. McDonnell added there are still new natural gas power plants being developed and in the permit process in the state.
In a follow-up, Rep. Fritz (R-Monroe) asked if gas drilling can be done safety, in particular in the Delaware River Watershed. McDonnell said it can be done safety and DEP has been setting tough standards to regulate drilling. But within the context of the Delaware River Basin there are concerns being expressed.
Rep. Matt Gabler (R-Clearfield) asked how much say Pennsylvanians will have in the regional plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. McDonnell said there will be a robust public engagement plan to engage stakeholders in the process and DEP will be transparent about what any specific proposals will include.
Rep. Stephen McCarter (D-Delaware) asked what role does DEP have in monitoring methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. McDonnell said it has updated its permitting requirements for new oil and gas operations through its General Permit 5 update and is now developing new regulations to cover existing facilities. He said he will provide more follow up information to the Committee.
Rep. Peter Schweyer (D-Lehigh) said a bipartisan group of legislators will be introducing a bill to authorize community solar projects next week and asked DEP’s position on the issue. McDonnell said the Pennsylvania Solar Future Plan does recommend authorizing community solar projects.
-- Pipeline Issues: Rep. James Struzzi (R-Indiana) asked how much time it has been taking to review permits infrastructure projects like pipelines. McDonnell said pipeline projects do take a lot of staff time, but DEP has recently opened a new Regional Permit Coordination office to more easily handle projects that cross regional boundaries
Rep. Christopher Quinn (R-Delaware) applauded DEP for Mariner East Pipeline permit hold, but asked if DEP has the necessary staff to deal with their violations suggesting more staff is needed. McDonnell said between DEP and county conservation districts there has been a “robust” response in dealing with these serious issues. To add staff to deal with these issues, McDonnell said, DEP would need additional funding and noted DEP has proposed increases in water quality permit fees to cover more of its administrative costs.
Rep. Leanne Krueger (D-Delaware) also applauded DEP’s acton on Mariner East Pipeline permits and asked what specific legislative initiatives DEP would support to fill gaps in regulating pipelines. McDonnell said the Governor’s announcement last week outlined the legislative initiatives the Administration would support covering intra-state pipeline routing approval, additional measures related to school safety requirements and other issues.
-- PFAS & DEP Staffing: Rep. Benjamin Sanchez (D-Montgomery) expressed a concern about whether DEP will have the resources to deal with PFAS-related drinking water contamination issues. McDonnell said the Safe Drinking Water Program has been adding staff thanks to a fee increase. He said DEP is looking to expand the sampling program for water suppliers across the state to get a better idea of what the scope of this problem is. He noted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced they are proceeding with a determination to adopt a Maximum Contaminant Level for PFAS in drinking water and taking other actions. He said, however, the PA PFAS Action Team wants to move more aggressively, adding DEP’s lab has purchased specialized testing equipment to conduct PFAS testing. He said they are prepared to act if EPA does not.
Rep. Martina White (R-Philadelphia) asked if DEP is monitoring PFAS contamination around the Willow Grove site. McDonnell said DEP’s Safe Drinking Water, Stormwater Discharges and Hazardous Sites Cleanup Programs have been involved with the site. DEP is holding the responsible parties-- U.S. Department of Defense-- responsible to deal with and pay for the cleanup and working with EPA on the issues there.
-- Susquehanna River Basin Commission: Rep. Keith Greiner (R-Lancaster) asked about the audit of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission done by the Auditor General who found the Commission had spent funds on lobster dinners. McDonnell noted he’s not one for extravagance and they are paying attention to the audit findings. He added they are following through with an Auditor General recommendation the state update the agreements with SRBC and DRBC to make sure there is a good process for understanding what their responsibilities are and what DEP and the Commissions do.
Rep. George Dunbar (R-Westmoreland) and Rep. Fred Keller (R-Snyder) both asked if we rewarding bad behavior at SRBC by proposing an increasing funding for the Commission. McDonnell said no and he supported the increase because Pennsylvania has not been paying its “dues” to the Commission. He said when you are the one in the room not paying their dues it does color the discussions.
-- Environmental Justice: Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia) asked about DEP’s Environmental Justice Program and how any environmental justice areas are in the state noting they aren’t just in urban areas. McDonnell said both an income and minority population criteria are used in defining these areas and that DEP is in the process of redoing its environmental justice public participation policy. McDonnell said he personally held listening sessions around the state on environmental justice issues and plans to do several more.
-- Illegal Dumping: Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia) asked what can be done to combat illegal dumping which is becoming a growing problem in Philadelphia. McDonnell DEP has worked with Keep PA Beautiful on a statewide litter survey to get an idea of the problem we face as well as asking the Solid Waste Advisory Committee to look at changes to Act 101 Recycling Law that would address some these and other issues.
-- Workforce Diversity: Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia) asked about the composition of DEP’s workforce. McDonnell said 30 percent of DEP’s employees are female and 7.5 percent minority. He added DEP is doing more direct recruitment efforts at colleges seeking minority candidates and promoting the idea environmental jobs as a possibility.
-- Workforce Development: Rep. Morgan Cephas (D-Philadelphia) asked how DEP is involved in workforce development programs outside the agency. McDonnell said workforce development has been a focus of most cabinet secretaries. In particular, DEP has been developing relationships with workforce programs and the Department of Corrections on promoting water plant operator certification training.
Rep. Austin Davis (D-Allegheny) asked how DEP is engaging with workforce programs for incarcerated individuals. McDonnell expanded on his earlier comments on the involvement with the Department of Corrections noting that agency has its own wastewater plants where individuals could get some hands on training as part of its operator certification initiative.
The Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on DEP’s budget is scheduled for February 28 at 3:00. Click Here to watch the Senate hearing online and for hearing summaries.
[Posted: Feb. 14, 2019]
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