A new Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) permit review process and the draft policy for implementing it met with criticism at the September 17 board of directors meeting of the Pike County Conservation District (PCCD) in Blooming Grove. Specific concerns were cited about the hasty process involved and the potential for “politicizing” the prioritization of permits.
“We just got this about two weeks ago and the comments have to be submitted to DEP by the end of the month,” said PCCD executive director Susan Beecher. Staff are currently reviewing the policy and developing comments.
Beecher acknowledged there is a need for greater efficiency and more coordination between DEP and PA conservation districts. However, the conservation districts had no input in the policy development. “I’m seeing some things that I’m concerned about and that could have been discussed if we were at the table,” she said.
Beecher attributed part of the problem to the fact that the policy covers most permits that DEP issues. “It not only applies to NPDES permits for construction, it also applies to sewage permits, mining permits, air quality authorizations and more,” she said. “It’s not clear what our role is going to be in some of these processes that are unfolding, and it would have been really helpful for us to be involved.”
Beecher also expressed concern that the rollout date is next month. “I think that’s really ambitious given what has to happen in the meantime,” she added.
“Can you give us any insight on why they’re streamlining this?” asked board chairman Scott Savini.
“I’m not sure why,” responded DEP Northeast Region Assessment and Planning Section Chief Carl Deluca. “This is central office, strictly, and the governor’s office working. They want better communication with each regional office and the central office is taking more of a role in providing the policies needed and proper guidance in a more timely manner.”
“I think we’re basically all in the dark as far as how this is actually going to play out,” said Beecher.
“As it’s coming out, we’ll get it to you, but we’re hearing it as fast as you’re hearing it at this point,” said Deluca.
Beecher expressed alarm over the timeframes being set for specific permits. “The oil and gas program permits range from 14 to 43 days and that includes the erosion and sediment control general permit for gas transmission lines. So we could have a project where there’s hundreds of acres of earth disturbance over miles and miles of transmission line and the permit decision guaranteed time for that project would be 43 days. That is outrageous.”
Deluca noted that DEP is “trying to come up with a game plan,” given that the agency will have only 10 days from the date of receipt in which to deem an application administratively and technically complete.
“The devil’s in the details,” said Beecher. “Those are the kinds of things that concern us. To have our technical staff review a plan along with all the administrative details in 10 days is really ambitious.”
Changes to the prioritization process were also cited as potential problems. “Currently, when a plan comes in, it gets put in line for review,” said Beecher. “That’s going to change under this policy. Permittees in Pike County who might have fairly small projects that aren’t considered important in terms of this prioritization that DEP is setting up are going to get lost in the shuffle.
“DEP staff are going to be focused on projects that maybe have some regional importance, that might have higher employment numbers, that may have some political connections that we don’t have in Pike County. We’ve always tried to be fair in reviewing projects in the timeframe in which they come in. Doing it any other way is going to set our staff up for some difficult political situations.”
“It’s going to set me up for some difficult political situations,” said Pike County Commissioner Rich Caridi.
“So we’ve politicized the process. That’s what it amounts to,” said PCCD board treasurer Linda Cioppa.
Beecher said there remain many “unknowns” in the policy. “There are so many things being left to interpretation,” she concluded. “In terms of consistency and fairness and environmental protection, this policy has a lot of concerns.”
In other matters, DeLuca reported that DEP’s four-county enforcement action on Tennessee Gas Pipeline’s 300 Line project is underway. “We’ve been working with PCCD staff to get all of the inspection reports, photos and violations for the Pike County portion,” he said. “I commend your staff and you, Susan, for the way you presented it.” PCCD staff were also praised for their exceptional record-keeping practices, which may be utilized by DEP for training purposes.
The PCCD board of directors also approved John Milliken, Hawley/Mast Hope as a new associate director. PCCD is seeking additional individuals interested in being considered as associate directors. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org  or contact the office at 570/226-8220.