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Pa. Governor to Let Coal Executive Fast-Track Environmental Permits

Already under fire for his gas drilling policies, Gov. Tom Corbett now wants to give a Pa. energy executive the authority to expedite environmental permits

Mar 13, 2011
Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania

In 2002, three of Walker's coal companies notified that they had run out of money and were going to stop treating the 173 million gallons of polluted water they produced each year and released into tributaries of the Susquehanna River. The state eventually got a court injunction to force them to continue treating the wastewater as required by state and federal law.

Corbett's budget, which was introduced Tuesday, emphasizes job creation and proposes eliminating economic development hurdles by streamlining permitting processes in the DEP and the .

"To address the length of time agencies take to act on permits and eliminate permit backlogs, PennDOT and DEP have begun auditing and assessing all of their permit processes to make them more responsive to the needs of job creators," the budget says.

In the budget, Corbett says drilling will bring Pennsylvania 200,000 jobs and $18 billion in economic benefit by the end of the decade. But the drilling industry's explosive growth has also caused environmental problems and the budget raises questions about whether the DEP — which could lose nearly 20 percent of its funding — will be able to address them.

Private water wells have been contaminated with methane gas and other pollutants across the state, and in many cases the DEP has found that hasty or insufficient gas well construction was to blame. Several drilling site accidents have led to spills where wastewater, including from hydraulic fracturing, contaminated streams.

A revealed that Pennsylvania's sewage treatment plants were accepting millions of gallons of drilling wastewater, but lacked the technology to remove or treat many of the chemicals and pollutants the water contained. In 2008, people along one stretch of the Monongahela River were to drink bottled water because the level of dissolved minerals and salts in the river was almost twice as high as the DEP considers safe.

Gov. Corbett: Jobs Must Trump Permitting Delays

The state has since more than doubled its workforce of inspectors and strengthened regulations for how gas wells are drilled, permitted and constructed. The DEP has installed additional water-quality monitors along the Monongahela and required drillers to report where they will take their wastewater after a well has been hydraulically fractured.

The agency has also required that wastewater treatment plants be equipped to remove the minerals and salts. And it has received proposals for 24 new waste treatment plants that are now in permitting or review processes — the type of projects Walker could conceivably influence.

In January, the that about 150 million gallons of Marcellus Shale wastewater — the majority of the wastewater for the period examined — had been dumped into rivers and streams after only partial treatment. A from the New York Times revealed that much of that wastewater was dangerously radioactive, and that drinking water facilities have not been testing their intake for this radioactivity.

On Monday, the EPA leaned on Pennsylvania's DEP to tighten its oversight of drilling waste disposal. The next day, Gov. Corbett released his budget, reducing DEP funding and stating that job creation should trump lengthy permitting delays.

"It's an expression of a philosophy that doesn’t value environmental regulation," said Jan Jarrett, president of . "It seems to be the desire of the governor to have this guy be able to pick up the phone and expedite any program that might impact jobs."

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