Senate bills would 'cripple environmental protection' in Pa.

Pennsylvania Budget
“A bill package recently approved by the state Senate to help pay for the commonwealth’s spending plan contains provisions that would cripple environmental protection in Pennsylvania,” according to State Rep. Greg Vitali.

A bill package recently approved by the state Senate to help pay for the commonwealth’s spending plan contains provisions that would cripple environmental protection in Pennsylvania. Even though these bills provide some needed revenue, the House and Gov. Wolf should reject this legislation.

The most damaging provisions are contained in the tax code. One provision would privatize the environmental permitting process, allowing gas drillers and other applicants to seek permit approval from third parties rather than the Department of Environmental Protection. This would eliminate a core protective function of the DEP, introduce conflicts of interest that would weaken protections for public health and the environment, remove public participation from the permitting process, and deprive the DEP of the application fees it needs to support the staff who protect all of us.

Another provision would establish a politically appointed advisory committee to decide on air-quality permits for unconventional gas well sites. This is a direct attack on the methane-reduction strategy Wolf proposed last year. Reducing fugitive methane emissions is one of the most important things Pennsylvania can do to address climate change and protect public health in the gas fields.

Former Republican DEP Secretary David Hess writes that these changes would “emasculate the ability of the Department of Environmental Protection to regulate pollution under any of its programs.”

Tucked in the fiscal-code bill is a provision to repeal the Oil and Gas Lease Fund Act of 1955. This fund collects money from drilling on state lands and uses it for conservation purposes.  The repeal appears unconstitutional in light of the recent state Supreme Court ruling that the Legislature and the governor must act as trustees of this money and use the fund only to conserve and maintain Pennsylvania public lands.

Also inserted in the fiscal-code bill is a provision transferring $30.4 million from the Volkswagen settlement earmarked for air-quality improvement to the general fund. That transfer may violate the terms of the settlement agreement reached in federal court.

The administrative-code bill contains a provision weakening water-quality regulations for manganese — something coal companies have sought.

The bill also contains a provision extending weaker standards for water-treatment plants serving the conventional drilling industry. Discharges from these facilities are harming freshwater mussels, a federally protected species. This provision may violate federal and state law.

Overall, this bill package is the worst collection of antienvironmental legislation I have seen in a long time, and Pennsylvanians should be outraged that the Senate would attempt to pass this damaging package in such a covert manner.

Budget bills should be about revenue and spending. They should not include special-interest provisions that could not be approved if considered separately.

These bills now move to the House, which should reject them. And the governor should declare his intent to veto this legislation should it reach his desk.

State Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware, Montgomery) represents the 166th Legislative District.