Prove your humanity

The Department of Environmental Protection’s new leader emphasized his management experience during a recent hearing on the agency’s proposed budget.

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed a $199.6 million budget for DEP for the upcoming fiscal year, a raise of about 9%.

The legislature, controlled by Republicans in the Senate and narrowly by Democrats in the House, is now weighing the proposal. The two chambers are supposed to come to an agreement on a spending plan by June 30.

Each executive branch agency gets a chance to make a case for its budget before the Appropriations Committee in each chamber. DEP officials met with senators on Wednesday and House representatives on Thursday this week.

DEP is tasked with reviewing plans for, and issuing permits to, operations that could disturb the land, water, and air. Those operations include natural gas drilling and power plant generation that creates emissions.

Republican lawmakers have long criticized DEP’s slow permit processing times, while advocates for the agency have called for more resources.

The Department had about 3,100 people on staff in the early 2000s. Then a series of budget cuts brought the agency to its current complement of around 2,400.

But Acting Secretary Richard Negrin isn’t asking the legislature to restore those lost jobs. He said with streamlined processes and upgraded tech, the agency can do more with less.

Negrin is a veteran of Philadelphia city government and has a background in managing large operations. He’s offering a 10-point plan to fix permitting that includes adding 30 staffers, creating a “rapid response” team for certain permits, and early engagement practices to help applicants submit the correct paperwork.

“When we say your permit is deficient and it’s repeatedly deficient over and over and over–at some point that’s not your fault, it’s ours,” Negrin told Senate lawmakers Wednesday. “What I’m trying to do is take all of those [permitting systems] and make this simpler, quicker, more user friendly, more predictable, easier to use, and more uniform.”

DEP says they received more than 40,000 permit applications last year, but only about 9,000 had all the information needed for the agency to issue a decision.

Negrin said some private sector practices such as quarterly reviews and more transparent data will help the agency find problems and solutions for permitting issues.Shapiro’s budget plan listed increasing permitting efficiency as a main reason for the 9% raise for DEP. It also says the money will expand air quality testing and dam safety investigations

Negrin noted his newcomer status to DEP and stressed that he views the proposed budget and his permit plan as the beginning of a conversation on how to improve the agency.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on the Senate panel seemed encouraged by Negrin’s approach.

Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York), who has sponsored measures meant to speed up permitting, complimented Negrin for putting an emphasis on permitting reform.

“I was so glad to hear you say that it’s not just the actions by those permitted entities but also that you have to look at the department itself,” she said.

Budget hearings are often a chance for lawmakers to ask agency heads about pet problems in a public forum. Lawmakers’ questions ranged from how the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative would work to policies around recycling and brownfield restoration.

Plugging abandoned oil and gas wells was also a topic of interest. Though not funded by the state’s General Fund, Pennsylvania is eligible for millions of new federal dollars to clean up old wells that are leaking methane into the air and waterways. DEP has data on about 27,000 orphan wells, but it estimates there are 200,000 or more that it doesn’t know about.

Negrin says the state got “a morsel of funding” with $25 million to start clean-up last year.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for us to put people to work in Pennsylvania around this issue and do both–help the economy, help those employees get some good work done and also improve the environment,” Negrin said.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.