More Than Half Of E&S Permit Applications Submitted Are Incomplete; Consultants Take 6 Weeks To Respond To Deficiencies
On May 1, the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee heard testimony from the Cumberland County Conservation District saying more than half of the erosion and sedimentation control/NPDES plan applications submitted to the district are incomplete and consultants (almost all registered engineers) take an AVERAGE of 33 business days to respond to technical deficiencies-- more than 6 calendar weeks.
Vincent McCollum, E&S Staff Supervisor for the District, said this analysis was based on a review of the 112 General Permit and NPDES applications the District received in 2017-18.
McCollum said, “Consultants and engineers often do not provide plans and drawings that contain sufficient information to perform a technical review of the application.”
He said it could be something like not having separate pre-construction and post-construction maintenance plans to trying to put a stormwater infiltration pond in an area that has a high groundwater table where infiltration is not possible.
And, he added, he felt consultants in Central Pennsylvania do a better job than consultants in other parts of the state.
“We often hear from consultants and engineers that they just submitted what they had completed for review because of deadlines set by the applicant or other municipal reviews,” explained McCollum.
McCollum also said, in response to a question, engineers are invited in to meet with District staff to go over the issues and to educate them on the proper submissions, but incomplete or deficient submissions still happens often.
“To more effectively expedite the permit process, consultants and engineers must provide accurate and complete submissions,” said McCollum. “If that doesn’t happen, delays are inevitable.”
[Note: The basic Chapter 102 regulations were adopted in 1972 and updated in 2010 and DEP published a Stormwater Best Management Practices Manual in 2006 to provide more guidance to consultants on approved design practices, yet consultants (all most all engineers) still make these fundamental mistakes that significantly delay permit reviews.
[DEP’s own analysis of applications it receives found in 2017 60 percent of erosion and sedimentation permit applications were incomplete or had technical deficiencies in the Oil and Gas Program and outside of that program as many as 80 percent of the permit applications DEP received were incomplete or had deficiencies.]
McCollum also noted part of the permit application review process is a public participation requirement which requires them to be published in the PA Bulletin to allow the public the opportunity to comment for a 30 day period.
McCollum and Ramez Ziadeh, DEP Executive Deputy For Programs who also provided comments to the Committee, said a new e-Permitting initiative covering erosion and sedimentation permit will eliminate many of the common completeness errors consultants make because it will not allow an applicant to proceed through the electric process if components are missed or if calculations are not correct.
Ziadeh said DEP is looking to have the e-Permitting system online this fall. The system will also have an element that allows the applicant and the public to see where the permit is in the process.
McCollum serves on a DEP workgroup helping to develop the e-Permitting system and estimated the new system may cut down review times by as much as one-third.
[Note: DEP already has an online eFACTS system that allows the public or anyone else to see what permit applications have been submitted to DEP in their municipality and their status, however, the interface system has not been updated since the early 2000s due to budget cuts by the General Assembly.]
New Low-Impact Project General Permit
McCollum, Ziadeh and Aneca Atkinson, DEP Acting Deputy for Water Programs, also described a new Low-Impact Project General Permit (PAG-1) DEP is developing for projects of 5 acres or less that could cover a significant number of the projects that now require a general or individual erosion sedimentation/NPDES permit.
[Note: In earlier comments on the low-impact General Permit, DEP staff said 40 to 50 percent of the erosion and sedimentation/NPDES permits reviewed are for projects of 5 acres or less.]
Atkinson said, while the details of the coverage for the permit are still being worked out, DEP hopes to publish the permit as proposed in June.
Applications Vary Considerably
Ziadeh also noted erosion and sedimentation permit applications can vary considerably in size from 5 acres to 200, and complexity from flat terrain to hilly, with landslide-prone soils and other conditions.
Trying to standardized how the permits are processed becomes difficult with this kind of variability.
McCollum and Ziadeh said a new online DEP Clean Water Academy training tool on the permit review process for conservation district staff and DEP employees will increase the capacity of staff to do better and faster reviews.
Ziadeh said DEP plans to open the Academy to consultants who prepare applications later in the year so they can be educated in the same way about the permit requirements and review process.
McCollum said one of reasons his office in Cumberland County is better prepared to handle permit reviews is he has experienced staff. He has 20 years of experience and another person on his staff has 10 years.
Staff turnover in some Districts and certainly in DEP is also a problem because his office relies on DEP for technical support.
McCollum noted the same staff doing permit reviews also does onsite compliance inspections and other compliance duties associated with the erosion and sedimentation program taking time away from just doing permit reviews.
Adequate District Funding
McCollum said adequate funding of the permit review process is critical to its success. In the case of Cumberland County there are 3 full time E&S review staff and one administrative support person.
The District receives, through the Conservation District Fund line item in the DEP and Department of Agriculture budgets, $45,000 a year to support the permit staff, when it costs about $335,000 a year to implement.
McCollum said the balance has to be made up by charging applicants permit review fees.
Ziadeh and Atkinson outlined several other initiatives DEP has undertaken to improve permit review times and more clearly define responsibilities--
-- Regional Permit Coordination Office: This new Office opened in January and eviews erosion and sedimentation permit applications for interstate natural gas pipelines and other linear projects that cross DEP Regional Office borders, PennDOT and Turnpike projects and other large or complicated projects that require more staff time.
-- Realigned Regional Offices: In January, DEP realigned its major Regional Office boundaries to move Armstrong and Indiana counties to the Northwest Regional Office to better balance permit workloads and staff resources.
-- Managed Release Concept is a new statewide alternative Best Management Practice that will allow projects in sensitive environmental areas to move forward in areas like contaminated sites, sites in karst areas, sites with limited infiltration capabilities and sites which otherwise cannot reduce post- construction runoff volume. Click Here for Managed Release Standards. Click Here for MRS Design Summary.
-- An Update of Stormwater BMP Manual is in process with DEP partnering with Villanova University. The goal of the project is to evaluate how well the existing practices perform and add new, updated practices. The manual will also encourage new green infrastructure solutions.
-- Pre-application Meetings: DEP is encouraging pre-application meetings to make sure consultants and their clients understand the requirements and the review process.
In addition to McCollum comments, Brenda Shambaugh, Executive Director of the PA Association of Conservation Districts, Inc. provided an overview of the different levels of participation in the erosion and sedimentation/NPDES permit application review process by districts across the state.
Both Shambaugh and DEP’s Ziadeh noted, erosion and sedimentation/NPDES permit reviews are covered by DEP’s Permit Decision Guarantee Program which sets deadlines, which are tracked, for the review of a wide variety of permits and approvals.
Ziadeh pointed out the deadlines apply to permit applications which are determined to be complete on the first submission since they can start being reviewed right away by technical staff.
DEP also has available an online DEP Permit Application Consultation Tool that allows applicants to determine when and what kind of environmental permit is required and how long it will take to receive a permit under the Permit Decision Guarantee Program.
A recommended follow-up to using the Application Consultation Tool would be to set up a pre-application meeting with DEP staff.
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), Majority Chair of the Committee, said the information meeting was prompted by the introduction of House Bill 414 (Zimmerman-R-Lancaster) which would require DEP and conservation districts to approve erosion and sedimentation permit applications within 20 days if they were submitted by a state licensed engineer. [Note: The Committee reported out the bill on a party-line vote April 16 (Republicans supporting).]
McCollum said if this requirement was implemented they would need additional staff, probably 2 new people.
As noted above, the permits also require notice in the PA Bulletin and a public comment period which would be eliminated by House Bill 414 or at least in direct conflict with this requirement.
Rep. Metcalfe said in response he did not want to hear about any solutions to permit review problems that involved more funding or people because taxpayers won’t stand for it.
Click Here for copies of written testimony. Click Here to watch a video of the information meeting. [When posted]
The Committee is scheduled to hold an informational meeting on May 8 to hear from the regulated community on their experiences with DEP’s permitting program.
The meeting will be held in Room B-31 of the Main Capitol starting at 9:00. Click Here to watch the meeting online. Click Here for more on the agenda.
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) serves as Majority Chair of the House Environmental Committee and can be contacted by calling 717-783-1707 or sending email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware) serves as Minority Chair and can be contacted by calling 717-787-7647 or sending email to: email@example.com.
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[Posted: May 1, 2019]
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