Senate budget legislation would cripple environmental protection

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 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 proposed by Wolf 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 that would 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's public lands.

Also inserted in the fiscal code bill is a provision that would transfer $30.4 million from the VW 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 added at the request of the Coal Alliance that would weaken water quality standard for manganese. This would shift the burden of reducing manganese in streams from coal companies to drinking water suppliers and increase cost to water customers. Exposure to high doses of manganese may harm the human nervous system and affect water taste, odor and color.

The bill also contains a provision that would extend 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 both federal and state law.

Overall, this bill package is the worst collection of anti-environmental 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.