Senate Republican Policy Committee Takes Comments On Improving DEP Permit Reviews
Witnesses told the Senate Republican Policy Committee this week budget cuts, lack of experience, inconsistent review criteria between regions and the lack of training for permit reviewers prevented the Department of Environmental Protection from making timely permit decisions holding up important projects.
DEP Secretary John Hanger said there was no doubt budget cuts have affected permit turnaround times saying it was the number two priority in the agency. The first priority, he said, was to make sure the agency's inspection and enforcement staff was not cut. Everything else DEP does, he said, was the third priority.
Preston Luitweiler, Aqua America, said everything done by a water company does not need to have a permit, pointing to a DEP requirement to require a permit to paint water tanks as an example. He said inconsistencies between regional offices which he said make up permitting requirements and conditions drives up costs for his company and the public.
At the same time, he felt DEP was not "generally off the reservation" with respect to its regulatory requirements.
He said the agency should make more use of general permits and permits-by-rule, adopt more self-certification requirements by licensed professional engineers and review the items required to have a permit.
He also noted increasing permit fees was "rampant" within the agency and suggested permit fees should only cover half the cost of permit reviews, with the public picking up the other half.
Andrew Hilt, American Council of Engineering Companies of PA, said DEP needed a change in philosophy in reviewing permits from trying to find things wrong to finding ways to get projects done. He also agreed that budget cuts have not helped speed permit reviews.
He recommended DEP accept federal permit reviews for the same project in-lieu of doing a redundant review, relying more on an engineer's seal to assure that permit requirements are being met, contract with consultants to do permit reviews to provide short-term help in eliminating permit review backlogs and provide a searchable database to give consultants a better idea of what types of applications DEP is looking for.
He also said there was a need to coordinate between state and local agencies when projects involved permits from several agencies.
Joseph Manko, an attorney for Manko, Gold, Katcher and Fox and Chair of the PennVEST board, said there should be some way to have an appeal from regional offices to the central office as a check on inconsistency between regional offices.
He also suggested DEP license "qualified consultants" as they do in New Jersey which allows an abbreviated review by the environmental agency. He noted there have been instances where "unwritten" policies by the agency were used by staff to review permits that applicants knew nothing about.
With respect to budget cuts, he said the agency has been forced not only to reduce staff, but shift existing staff inexperienced in programs to new positions making DEP less able to review permits in a timely way.
He said he found pre-application conferences with DEP staff particularly useful in speeding reviews. He also recommended DEP accept more electronic submissions of permits for review.
William Fink, of Country View Family Farms, and John Reininger, The Clemens Family Corporation (Hatfield Meats), said they experienced significant delays in permits review-- in some cases three or four years-- forcing them to move some of their hog raising operations to Indiana.
Fink said, however, after involving legislators and state associations, the permit issues were resolved over time.
Michael Kenney, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, and Michael Schober, Buchart Horn, Inc., represented the PA Municipal Authorities Association, repeated many of the issues outlined by previous witnesses-- regional inconsistencies, lack of training for DEP staff, staff turnover and retirements depriving the agency of permit review experience.
Kenney also noted permit reviews involved frequent back and forth questions and answers asked one at a time from DEP staff over an extended period of time that works to delay permit reviews instead of getting all the questions asked and answered at one time. He also recommended an "expert panel" that would help review permits.
Kenney also said DEP was raising more and more permit fees to cover its review costs and said all the revenue from the fees should be kept within the program to pay for permit review staff.
He also explained DEP has stopped certifying water and wastewater plant operators due to staff shortages causing an artificial demand for certified operators.
Secretary Hanger said "there is no Santa Claus" at the Rachel Carson Building (DEP's headquarters), these programs have to be paid for some how, either by the taxpayers or from increasing permit review fees.
He said his agency was adopting many of the tools already mentioned by many witnesses including increased use of general permits, self-certification and other steps to streamline the permit review processes.
Each year, he noted, his agency processes tens of thousands of permits with each process being almost unique following the laws and regulations they are given to administer. He said he would like to convert more of these processes to be entirely electronic, but that costs money, money his agency does not have.
He commented regional inconsistencies will always be a problem that requires constant management oversight and where these and other problems are brought to his attention he reviews them carefully. Frequently, he noted, there are two sides to an issue as well as legitimate concerns by both those seeking permits and those in the public who might be opposed. Both sides most be respected.
"DEP faces the dual challenge of ensuring the protection of our natural resources through a process that is applied in a consistent manner statewide, without causing undue delays that impede community development and job creation,” said Sen. Erickson.
“It’s my hope that DEP, stakeholders and the Legislature can work together to bring the application and permitting process into the 21st century. By implementing some of the suggestions made today and streamlining the process, more effort can go into environmental protection and economic development, and less into paperwork,” said Sen. Ted Erickson (R-Delaware) Chair of the Committee.
Video of the hearing is available online.
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