PITTSBURGH (AP) — Critics say a new order from Gov. Tom Corbett will pressure state employees to more quickly approve environmental permits, including Marcellus Shale gas wells and projects that involve sensitive wetlands or ecosystems.
The order, signed July 24, is described as a "Permit Decision Guarantee" for the Department of Environmental Protection. Environmental advocates say the order directs the agency to "consider compliance with the review deadlines a factor in any job performance evaluations" of staff.
"It's going to put the public health and safety at risk," said George Jugovic Jr., a former top DEP employee who supervised a staff of more than 200 as the agency's Southwest regional director. "I think the message is clear. Issuing the permit has a higher priority than doing a fair and thorough job of insuring that the application complies with the law."
"This executive order does not recognize any of the complexities of what the agency is required to do," Jugovic added. It also won't affect operations "other than to further beat down an already demoralized staff." Jugovic is president of PennFuture, an environmental group with offices throughout the state.
But DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said in a statement that Corbett's new order "will not sacrifice environmental protection." Sunday said details of the new policy are being developed and the agency will publish them for public comment this month.
"We are confident that we have the staff needed to both carry out the governor's executive order and protect the environment," Sunday said, adding that "any criticism of this policy is entirely premature, as the policy has not yet even gone out for public comment."
Corbett said last month that many groups have complained about how long it takes to approve permits.
"One of the biggest complaints I have received over and over again is the time it takes for businesses, nonprofit organizations and local governments to work through the permitting process," Corbett said in a statement. "I promised to correct this."
Stephen Kunz, an ecologist with Schmid & Company Inc., a consulting firm based in Media, also criticized the order.
"This is just going in absolutely the wrong direction. They should be slowing down," Kunz said.
Last year, The Associated Press reported that state environmental regulators said they spend as little as 35 minutes reviewing each of the thousands of applications for natural gas well permits. Even then, the regulators said, they didn't spend extra time for requests to drill near high-quality streams and rivers even though the waterways have special state and federal protections.
Kunz said the emphasis on speed might make sense for an agency that promotes business development but not for the DEP.
"That's not the way I think the public expects the Department of Environment Protection to protect the environment," he said. "It's a very short-sighted framework. I think it's a real disservice to the public."