State House representatives have proposed transferring hundreds of millions of dollars from special funds — including those that fuel projects like parks, recycling and industrial cleanups — to balance the budget, rather than raise taxes or levy a severance tax on the natural gas industry. Kara Holsopple spoke with John Dawes, executive director of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, to understand what this could mean for the environment in our region.
Kara Holsopple: Where is this effort by state House representatives now?
John Dawes: It is actually between the House and Senate, and I think that they are very much back to square one because it’s a terrible idea to illegally raid those funds. Those funds were collected, in the case of the Grower Greener Fund, for a specific purpose, and that was for environmental restoration. I would contend that should they be successful in doing so, it will be litigated. We’ve had recent litigation regarding Article 1 Section 27 of the Constitution, otherwise known as the Environmental Rights Amendment. And that’s about people having access to clean water and clean air and that it be so for generations yet to come. And act like that would be directly in conflict with that constitutional right.
KH: The Growing Greener Fund is one of the funds that they’re looking at drawing from. Can you say a little bit more about what Growing Greener is, how it’s funded and what it does?
JD: Growing Greener was established by Governor Tom Ridge in the 90s. Growing Greener II was established by Governor Rendell. It’s very much a bipartisan program, and has meant wonderful restoration of our parks, of toxic pollution, of acid mine drainage throughout our communities. It has meant trails, it has meant wonderful recreation value to citizens of the state.
LISTEN: “What the PA Budget Could Mean for Parks, Recycling and Industrial Cleanups”
KH: And the money for that fund doesn’t come from taxpayers, right?
JD: No, it comes from the tipping fee. When out of state trash is imported to Pennsylvania and put in Pennsylvania landfills, a fee is paid and it accumulates in the Growing Greener fund.
KH: There are a number of funds that are eligible for this transfer — highway beautification, underground storage tank, indemnification fund. Can you give an example of some other environmental funds that might be drawn from and how they’re used now?
JD: Keystone is another which is funded through a real estate transfer tax, and that has been traditionally used for accumulating land and adding lands to Pennsylvania’s state forests and parks. It is tremendously valuable to watersheds for the reason that a healthy clean environment is the source of our clean water.
KH: What would it mean to Pennsylvania if those monies were reallocated?
JD: These funds were set up by the legislature and approved by the legislature for very specific reasons. They pertain to human health; they pertain to human safety; they pertain to quality of life. And I think it’s very short-sighted on the part of those legislators because most citizens know for whom they are working. And in this moment of time, they are not working in the best interest of the citizens of Pennsylvania.
Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution reads:
“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all of the people, including generations yet to come.”
KH: Supporters of this House plan say it only touches surpluses in those funds. Is that accurate?
JD: It’s not because most of those funds are obligated already in terms of projects that have been presented, that have been approved, or in some stage of completion. And the analysis that I’ve seen that was done by the Growing Greener Coalition indicates that only 1.5 million dollars from both funds would be available to balance a multi-billion dollar deficit. In my opinion, the biggest problem is the unwillingness of the House to enact a 5 percent severance tax on the gas industry.
KH: How do you think this is likely to play out?
JD: Right now, I don’t know. The contention is between parties. One would think that it was between Democrats and Republicans. But in this instance, I believe it’s between Senate leadership and leadership in the House of Representatives. And I think that both bodies need to concentrate on representing on the best interest of the citizens of the state and of their communities rather than the interest of the oil and gas industry.
KH: Well on the federal level, I know you and others are working on something called the Reclaim Act of 2017 which was introduced in Congress earlier this year. And it would release money from the abandoned mine land reclamation fund over five years to clean up abandoned coal mining sites in Appalachia and, of course, in Pennsylvania. What’s happening with that effort to get it signed into law?
JD: Well, it is moving forward. RECLAIM is an acronym. It stands for Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More. And it’s a very, very good bill, especially for Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has the most to gain and the most to lose if it’s not passed. The idea is to spend money out early from the abandoned mine lands fund which has over $2 billion in it. The idea is to take one billion dollars and spend $200 million a year for each of five years. For Pennsylvania, that would mean an additional $55 million a year for mine reclamation. Abandoned mine lands, as a reminder, and acid mine drainage are still the number one water quality problem in the state of Pennsylvania.
KH: Those are those orange streams that we and a lot of us who live in this region are familiar with?
JD: That’s exactly right. Should it pass, it would be the very first jobs bill to pass Congress during this administration. Because part of the conditions of this early spend out is a requirement for job creation and for documenting that aspect of the reclamation work.
KH: And part of the reasoning behind it is to clean up these areas so they can be used for economic development.
JD: Exactly. And our best example of that is the Ehrenfeld project in Cambria County. This is a town where 3.2 million tons of coal refuse sits, putting the town in a shadow; creating horrible environmental conditions, horrible water quality conditions; and making it such that nobody could sell their house. And it’s more than $20 million where that pile is being removed right now. The township wants to do a park. So it’s a great visible example, a very dramatic example, of how these funds can improve an entire community.