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DEP wants to boost fees on major polluters

| Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013, 12:27 a.m.

Air quality improved so much in Pennsylvania that the state isn't making enough in pollution fees to cover one of its core permitting programs.

State officials want to increase by half the fees that big polluters pay, from $56 per ton of emissions to $85. The Department of Environmental Protection will hold public hearings on the plan, including one on March 5 in its Pittsburgh office.

The action would be in response to lessening air pollution from stationary sources, cut by half statewide between 2008 and 2011, according to federal data. Because power plants and factories are polluting much less, they pay less in fees the state uses to run the program that permits them. A fee hike would help cut deficits that are on pace to rise to $17.3 million by mid-2015.

“With the deficit, it wasn't something that could wait,” said Nancy D. Perkins, an environmental law expert at Duquesne University who helped the DEP's Citizens Advisory Council review the proposal. “Something had to happen. What happened here wasn't necessarily out of line with what other states were doing.”

The Electric Power Generation Association does not plan to fight the fee increase, said Jake Smeltz, president of the Harrisburg-based industry group. State officials spent years discussing and vetting the proposal with stakeholders in order to smooth its way to passage, Smeltz and Perkins said.

“I would say that the process was fair,” Smeltz said. “When you have that type of dynamic, it's not surprising that the fees are going up.”

Federal and state rules require Pennsylvania to charge plants enough annually to fully fund the permitting program. It covers permit reviews, modeling, analysis, staff costs, pensions, benefits, resources and equipment, DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said.

The program applies to 560 facilities statewide, all of which pay for their first 4,000 tons of pollution. There were more than 800 polluters when the program started in 1994, according to the state.

At least a dozen coal-fired plants, the biggest polluters, are scheduled to close by 2015, meaning the state will have to do more to cover the deficit, Sunday said. This fee increase would raise about $5 million by 2014-15, leaving the department about $12 million short for the following year.

“We are aware that a ton-based fee may only temporarily stabilize the program,” Sunday said. “Trying to close the funding gap with a per-ton-based fee will not work, as it would drastically increase costs for the few well-controlled coal-fired power plants that expect to remain in operation after 2015.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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