Prove your humanity

Republican lawmakers want to change the name of the Department of Environmental Protection.

The state Senate voted along party lines on June 7 to rename the agency the “Department of Environmental Services.”

The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) said a name change could spark what he sees as a needed culture change.

He said DEP has taken on the attitude of police instead of working as a partner with permit applicants.

“The citizens of Pennsylvania are not the enemy of DEP, but I think that’s kind of what’s happened,” Yaw said during a recent meeting of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

A grand jury report in 2020 found DEP was not over-policing but letting the fracking industry get away with too much. The report said DEP failed to protect the public from the health effects of fracking and were unprepared for the drilling boom that started about 15 years ago.

Republicans in the legislature have for years criticized DEP for slow permit processing. DEP says it has sped up permitting times, but many applications are submitted without all the necessary information.

Yaw’s bill wouldn’t change DEP’s oversight responsibilities or enforcement powers.

David Hess, a former DEP Secretary under Republican governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker, said the mission of the department is protection.

“That doesn’t mean that they can’t have an efficient and effective permit process. That doesn’t mean they should have an unfair enforcement process,” he said.

Hess noted lawmakers have not been publicly discussing proposed solutions, such as Acting DEP Secretary Rich Negrin’s plan for improving permitting.

Hess said any problems within the agency won’t be fixed with a name change.

“This is nothing more than a dog whistle,” he said.

Executive director of PennEnvironment David Masur said on one hand, “What’s in a name?” But, on the other hand, he said, lawmakers are supposed to tackle the serious issues facing the state.

He called the timing of the vote “tone-deaf.”

“While the continent was literally on fire and Pennsylvanians were suffering some of the worst air pollution days on record from smoke and air pollution from wildfires in Canada, Republicans in Harrisburg were fiddling around with titles of state agencies instead of proposing solutions to the climate crisis that’s contributing to these catastrophic events,” Masur said.

Hess said the bill shows some lawmakers are more interested in “window-dressing” than finding solutions to real environmental issues, like recent failures at natural gas sites.

Information submitted to DEP shows multiple problems in Washington County in the span of several days in December. There was a 10,000-gallon spill of natural gas liquids and contaminated water at the Imperial Compressor Station, owned by MarkWest Liberty Midstream & Resource. Energy Transfer reported a 9½-hour uncontrolled release of pollutants from its Revolution Cryogenic Natural Gas Processing Plant during a Christmas Day explosion and fire. And the CNX Oak Springs Natural Gas Pipeline Pigging Station released an estimated 1.1 million cubic feet of natural gas and hazardous air pollutants because of a malfunction.

A request for comment on the bill from industry groups was not returned.

The bill is now in the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, chaired by Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware.)

“I think the department is appropriately named,” Vitali said in an email.

The Shapiro Administration opposes the name change.

Masur and Hess said the forthcoming budget, due at the end of June, should show how the legislature and administration could move forward on environmental policy.

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.