The state Senate confirmed Gov. Josh Shapiro’s pick to oversee Pennsylvania’s environmental issues on Tuesday.
Rich Negrin won wide, bipartisan support in his nomination to be Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. There were 48 yes votes, one no (from Republican Doug Mastriano of Franklin County), and one senator absent.
The Shapiro Administration says Negrin is the first Latino DEP Secretary.
Negrin is a former Philadelphia deputy mayor. The administration touts his management track record as a positive for the agency.
In a hearing on his nomination Monday, senators asked Negrin about his position on a 2020 grand jury report–released by then-Attorney General Shapiro–that found DEP failed to protect public health during the fracking boom and recommended new safety standards for drillers.
One of the recommendations, for which legislation has been introduced this session, was to increase the set-back of all oil and gas wells to 2,500 feet from any home or business, up from 500 feet. The set-back would be greater for schools and hospitals.
Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said that would be a virtual ban on the industry.
“If it’s your intent to ban drilling, then let’s say we’re going to ban drilling,” Yaw said.
Negrin said he doesn’t have a position on the recommendations. He said he has a team reviewing the report and the science around fracking and health effects.
He added he does not see DEP as an advocate.
“It is my obligation, I think, as Secretary of DEP to be an honest broker around impacts on the environment when I get pulled in as a stakeholder,” Negrin said.
Negrin assured senators the administration is committed to an “all of the above” energy strategy, and that he is open to carbon capture and hydrogen projects if they can benefit Pennsylvania and the environment.
Negrin said he has been busy since taking on the secretary job in an acting capacity. A Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border in February. The next month, the department responded to an 8,000-gallon chemical spill in the Delaware River.
He said DEP will continue to monitor those communities, and public engagement across the state will be a priority going forward.
“We need to be embedded in these communities. All of them – poor, rural communities across Pennsylvania; communities of color. We need to be embedded and helping manage that outreach and those community pieces so that we’re better at it; so that we don’t just parachute in when there’s an issue,” Negrin said.
Negrin noted that he’s been advancing his plan to improve DEP’s permitting system, but it will take new technology–and more money in next year’s budget– for the agency to operate at the level he’s shooting for. He noted DEP’s eFACTS system is 35 years old.
“Permitting is the role and responsibility that gives me oversight to make sure that we can either mitigate or totally eliminate any potential environmental harm. The faster I can do that, the better that is for the environment,” Negrin said.
DEP regulates air and water pollution, mining, oil and gas, and is mainly responsible for the state’s climate change policies.
The agency has faced criticism from all sides–from environmentalists for not doing enough to stop pollution, and from industry backers who say the agency can’t move fast enough to accommodate business.
DEP has shrunk over the last decade as its budget was cut.
Negrin said he doesn’t know yet if he has enough staff to provide effective oversight.
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.