DEP streamlining its permit, oversight functions in southwestern Pennsylvania
The state Department of Environmental Protection says it is cutting red tape often associated with its review of projects that could impact air, water and soil quality in southwestern Pennsylvania.
In the past year, the DEP’s Southwest Regional Office reduced its backlog of permits by more than 75 percent – from 1,464 to 359 – and shortened its review timeline for erosion and sediment control general permits by more than 220 days, the office said.
Not only has the office reduced the backlog of pending permit applications in the region, which covers eight counties, “it has stayed current on new permits and has not added to the backlog,” said DEP spokeswoman Lauren Fraley.
Helping with the streamlining was DEP’s decision to open a Regional Permit Coordination Office, or RPCO, and to shift two counties – Indiana and Armstrong – from the Southwest Regional Office to the Northwest Regional Office, Fraley said.
The RPCO will assist with construction permitting for large-scale, multi-county infrastructure projects, such as pipelines and highways, she said. Coal mining and radiation protection are handled by different DEP offices and, thus, are not affected by the recent changes.
“DEP’s goal with this initiative is to reduce the backlog of pending applications, improve permit review times, manage workloads and expand the use of electronic permit application tools to help simplify the process where possible,” Fraley said.
Ron Schwartz, director of the Southwest Regional Office, said the efficiency measures will not reduce the rigor of the DEP’s review.
“These are meant to help us work smarter – so we can focus our resources on actually doing the technical reviews and spend less time on the administrative paperwork and filings,” Schwartz said. “The focus of our work is to find ways to work smarter but never compromise the quality of the review.”
Six main areas where DEP permitting is required are:
- Construction projects, which require Chapter 102 (erosion and sediment control) permits;
- Water crossings, which require Chapter 105 (water obstruction and encroachment) permits;
- Construction of air emission sources, such as power plants;
- Industrial wastewater discharges;
- Stormwater discharges; and
- Drinking water and sewerage construction.
The DEP was able to streamline its processes by adding personnel, cleaning up records, adding e-permitting and e-inspections, improving communications with applicants and stressing the importance of accurate applications, Schwartz said.
“If what we receive (from an applicant) isn’t of the quality we require, then we have to send it back. There can be a lot of back-and-forth that just lengthens the time (of the permit review),” Schwartz said.
Melissa Marshall, community advocate for the Mountain Watershed Association, said the RPCO has the “potential to prevent some of the inconsistencies we saw during permit review of the Mariner East (pipeline) project.”
The Mountain Watershed Association was one of three environmental groups to appeal the permits granted by the DEP for the Mariner East 2 pipeline in February 2017, calling for more stringent permit conditions.
Marshall said the state also needs regulatory protections that more effectively address cross-country pipeline projects.
“There’s no protection for people who’ve had their water contaminated by pipeline activity like there is for mining and gas pad drilling,” she said. “Permit coordination is nice, but if the permit conditions aren’t effective enough to protect the communities and environment in the area, then it doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
Dan Weaver, president of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association, said “deficiencies” and problems of oversight and management have dogged some regional DEP offices.
“(The association) believes the department can address those issues and reduce delays in the issuance of some permits and the arbitrary nature of some conditions attached to those permits,” Weaver said.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter @shuba_trib.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .