Senate budget legislation would damage Pa environment

HARRISBURG, July 28 -- A package of bills approved by the Pennsylvania Senate yesterday to help pay for Pennsylvania’s $32 billion spending plan contain numerous provisions harmful to Pennsylvania, said state Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware/ Montgomery. Vitali is calling on Gov. Wolf to reject this legislation

According to Vitali, the most damaging provision, contained in the Tax Code, would privatize the environmental permitting process allowing gas drillers and other applicants to go to seek permit approval from third parties rather than the Department of Environmental Protection.

“This would create a clear conflict of interest,” Vitali said. "Also allowing application fees to go to third parties would deprive the DEP of a much needed source of funds to run its programs."

Vitali also said he is troubled by a provision in the Tax Code that would allow a politically appointed advisory committee to decide on air quality permits for unconventional gas well sites.

"This provision is a direct attack on the methane reduction strategy proposed by Governor Wolf in January 2016," he said. "Reducing fugitive methane emissions from gas drilling operations is one of the most important things Pennsylvania can do to address climate change."

Vitali also noted that the Fiscal Code bill the Senate passed also contains a provision to repeal the Oil and Gas Lease Fund Act of 1955. This fund collects monies from drilling on state lands and uses them for conservation purposes.

"This repeal appears unconstitutional in light of the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling in the Environmental Defense Foundation case where the court ruled the legislature must be a trustee for monies collected in that fund," Vitali said.

The Fiscal Code bill also contains a provision that would transfer $30.4 million from the VW settlement earmarked for air quality improvement to the General Fund.

Vitali said the Administrative Code bill contains a provision that would require a weakening water quality regulations for manganese, something the coal companies has sought. It also contains a provision that would extend weaker standards for water treatment plants serving the conventional drilling industry.

He also said that discharges from these facilities are harming federally protected species, such as the freshwater mussels. This provision may violate both federal and state law.

“This is the worst collection of anti-environmental legislation I have seen in a long time," said Vitali, a 25-year veteran of the legislature and former chairman of the House Environmental Resource and Energy Committee. “Were Governor Wolf to sign this legislation as is, he would lose all credibility among many who care about the environment in Pennsylvania. This is way too high a price to pay for a severance tax,” Vitali said.

This package of bills now moves to the Pennsylvania House for consideration. The House is expected to reconvene in the second half of August.